A plea from the work zone

December 17, 2007|By Mike Dresser

Most motorists never get an opportunity to visit a highway work zone on foot and to watch as workers lay asphalt just feet away from where the traffic is whizzing by.

Reporters occasionally get an opportunity to put on a hard hat and psychedelic-colored vest and observe the action -- if only for brief periods. It gives you a new appreciation of the men and women who work on our highways. And you gain some insights into the mindset of the people who speed by them -- apparently oblivious to the mismatch between flesh and blood and a few tons of steel.

Recently, the O'Malley administration said it would ask the General Assembly for the authority to use cameras to enforce speed laws in work zones. This column asked people who work in these zones to weigh in. Donald W. Brown, project coordinator for Kinsley Construction Inc., obliged:

We need work zone speed cameras to slow down the speeders who have no regard for highway workers.

I have been a project manager on heavy highway projects in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia since 1986. I have seen many near misses and, unfortunately have had three fatalities on my projects during that time period due to careless drivers.

My crews are on the highway every day with high-speed traffic literally inches away from them. Most motorists are considerate, they slow down and they exercise caution in a work zone. However, the "special few" that speed through work areas with reckless abandon MUST BE STOPPED!!!

If you have ever had to go to someone's house and inform the husband or wife that their spouse will not be coming home from the job that day, you would appreciate the anguish that these families endure. I have done it several times and I pray that I will never have to do it again.

Using caution and traveling at a safer speed through a work area may add a few minutes to someone's commute. That's just too bad. Tell them to take less time in the Starbucks that morning getting their precious latte but take their time through the work zones and SAVE A LIFE!!!

On the other side of the issue, some motorists expressed frustration with work zones where they see no visible evidence of activity.

Edwin Cox, a former Marylander who lives in Greensboro, N.C., said he has "no problem at all with slowing to work zone speeds when there is actual work with actual people in the zone."

I do have a problem with work zones that stretch for miles and miles at unnecessarily low speeds where one might find one group of people working on one of the seven bridges included in the work zone.

Unfortunately, "work zones" are mostly just areas where work is planned -- sometime in the next six weeks or six months.

Sometime it appears that way to me, too, so I checked with Laura Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration, as well as Brown.

According to Rakowski, what motorists see doesn't always reveal the true picture of what's going on. For instance, she said, work -- such as that involving utility lines -- might be going on out of sight.

In other cases, she said, paving work performed overnight might have to be left to harden during the day. The work zone that appears abandoned during the day might have been a scene of frantic activity a few hours before.

According to Rakowski, the majority of work on interstates and major state highways is done at night.

In other cases, a work zone might remain in effect while a crew takes a break. During those times, she said, lone inspectors might be out on the site checking the progress of the job.

Rakowski also noted that some projects require the contractors to set up Jersey walls that narrow lanes or to keep heavy equipment at the site. Those can be compelling reasons to slow down -- even in the absence of visible work crews.

"Our philosophy with work zones is to get in and get out as soon as possible, with minimum disruption to motorists," Rakowski said.

Brown pointed out that roadwork is carried out under a traffic control plan designed for each job site for the duration of the project.

"Signs, barrels, concrete barriers and lights cannot be put out and taken away every time the crew is not right next to the traveled roadway," he said.

Brown said critics should come and spend some time with a road crew. "They may not like to be where a truck doing 70 mph is 2 feet away and their only protection is a row of plastic barrels and some signs," he said.

It might not be practical to entertain every disgruntled motorist in a work zone, but it can't be too difficult to educate a legislative committee or two. Don ye now a hard hat, Senator.

Heading South

Readers continue to improve on the tips given here on how to avoid Interstate 95 congestion -- with a focus this week on reaching the South.

Harry Beck suggests a refinement to my suggested route to middle North Carolina. I had recommended taking the Capital Beltway to Interstate 66 in Virginia at U.S. 29 and then south. Beck offers an alternative for when the Beltway and I-66 are jammed -- which is frequently.

Baltimore-area drivers can take Interstate 70 to Frederick and pick up U.S. 340 toward Harpers Ferry. Get off on U.S. 15 toward Leesburg, Va., and stay on that road until you hit U.S. 29 at Warrenton. You can expect some slow going on U.S. 15 around Leesburg. Much of it is a country road overrun with development. But at peak times it's likely to be less frustrating than the D.C. Beltway and I-66.

And once you hit 29, chances are you'll be fine all the way to Greensboro, N.C.



Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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