Proceed with caution

Accidents: Highway work zones are becoming more dangerous for drivers and workers.

March 20, 2004|By Liz Boch | Liz Boch,SUN STAFF

Asad Kayani considers himself extremely lucky.

When he heard the car slam into an orange barrel along his Baltimore-Washington Parkway work zone, he bolted to avoid it. It was only because the Volkswagen Jetta lost control that the highway worker was spared.

Three other people working on the bridge repair project along the highway were injured.

Two were thrown about 10 feet, landing on a patch of grass, Kayani said. The other was thrown beside the guardrail.

All three workers survived the Feb. 20 accident. But state officials say the accident illustrates the growing hazard faced in highway work zones. Highway officials are asking motorists to be more alert. The officials also say that they could work with contractors to add safety measures.

In 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, 19 people died and 1,956 were injured in work zone crashes, said David Buck, spokesman for the State Highway Administration. That's a steep increase from the year before, when seven people died and 1,733 were injured.

This month has seen accidents as well.

On March 8, David A. Bowles of Kingsville was killed after being struck by a 2000 Acura along the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway in Riderwood while putting up a portable highway sign notifying drivers of planned lane closures. On March 2, a 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse heading east on the Beltway near Thornton Road struck three construction workers.

With as many as 200 active work zones on state roads, and more planned for the spring, motorists are frequently forced to shift from highway cruising to slower speeds.

"It's an increasing problem," Buck said. "Unfortunately, the reality is that people come up into these work zones so fast because they're trying to cut over at the last minute. ... You're taking your own life into your hands."

Although some might think it is the workers who are in the most danger during a crash, it is actually motorists who are injured or killed in about 80 percent of the cases, Buck said. The driver of the Mitsubishi in the March 2 crash was seriously injured, along with one of the construction workers.

"We're asking people to `think orange,'" Buck said. "When they start to see the orange cones, the orange barrels, the message signs - but unfortunately folks ignore them."

Kayani, a Rockville resident and subcontracted employee of Progressive Engineering Consultants Inc. in Columbia, said work zones could be made safer. He said work zones typically offer little protection against speeding drivers.

"It's not safe no matter how far you are from the traffic," he said. "They're just plastic barrels that they [cars] can just knock us down. ... They will not stop a car."

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said highway work zones could be hazardous partly because of limited space.

"There's a lot less margin for error for drivers then," Pedersen said. "They're driving on a portion of the roadway that may be less forgiving and are more apt to have a crash."

Kayani's work zone had no state trooper guarding the site. An investigation by the SHA into the Feb. 20 crash revealed that the project was correctly engineered with the proper safety precautions and traffic control devices posted.

The presence of a trooper and signs denoting increased fines for speeding are determined by similar factors, Buck said. They include the length of time designated for the project, the level of congestion, the road's geography and whether there have been lane closures at that area in the past or will be during the project itself.

The work zone on the southbound Baltimore-Washington Parkway - Route 295 - was clearly marked with warning signs and barrels, Buck said. Last month's crash occurred shortly before noon, according to police, and troopers are posted to work zones only at night.

"Given that this section of 295 is not congested, it was lighted, and there was more than enough time to see that there was a lane closure, there wasn't a trooper," Buck said.

Others attribute the increase in accidents to greater congestion along roadways. From 1987 to 2002, the number of miles traveled by vehicles in the Baltimore region increased four times as fast as the rate of new highway construction, said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Amanda Knittle.

Buck said that emphasizing the severe penalties for work zone violations might lessen the frequency of crashes.

A fine for speeding in a highway work zone is $275, in addition to any other moving violations, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the Maryland State Police.

If there is an accident involved, Rouse said, the penalties could be more severe.

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