Work Zone Safety


Heads up in highway work zones

At breakup, spring, sunlight, motorists and construction crews seem to return all at once to Alaska’s highways and their ruts and potholes, vanished striping and bowed-out guardrails. New and continuing projects and a hard winter mean contractors and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities will be sending out plenty of workers and heavy equipment this season to make repairs and safety upgrades, widen shoulders, add rest areas and passing lanes, rework interchanges, straighten out curves, resurface roughed-up sections and lay down fresh lane stripes.

The few months between breakup and freeze-up are all the time Alaska road crews have to do what elsewhere is a year’s labor, so drivers should know that in some places these workers will be on the job around the clock.

Upgrades, repairs and maintenance are scheduled from Homer to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, the DOT&PF’s Central Region; and on northward from the Mat-Su to Tanana, Fairbanks and the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, the Northern Region. In Anchorage, for instance, flaggers will be protecting crews working on the new diverging diamond interchange at the Glenn Highway and Muldoon Road; about 4 miles of the Parks Highway from Church Road to Pittman Road (MP 44.5 to 48.8) will go from two-lane to four-lane with a new bridge at MP 46.5 and continuous lighting and new signals at four locations; and the Richardson Highway will see 11 miles of lane restrictions, flagging, pilot car operations, gravel, and truck crossings during resurfacing from MP 24 to MP 35. Travelers can go to www.dot.alaska.gov/regions-portal.shtml to check their routes in advance for construction and possible delays.

Motorists will share the state’s roads with flaggers, road crews and heavy equipment into October, which means outgoing and incoming traffic will sometimes have to wait to caravan one-way behind a pilot car, or wait for clearance for a single lane, or idle while machinery completes a task. Wise travelers pack snacks and allow extra time to guarantee themselves and others safe passage, starting by paying attention to warning signs and cutting back on speed.

April 3 through April 7 marks this year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week and kicks off the highway construction season under sponsorship by the American Traffic Safety Services Association (“Safer Roads Save Lives”).

Speeding and distracted driving are the biggest causes of work-zone wrecks, with rear-end crashes the most common. The Federal Highway Administration’s most recent “Work Zone Safety for Drivers” brochure (2014) noted:

  • Of the 4,400 people who died in work-zone crashes over five years, 85 percent of them were drivers or passengers, and 200,000 more people were injured.
  • Summer and fall are the most dangerous because these busiest construction months coincide with the busiest travel months.
  • In 2014, 669 people were killed in work zones nationwide.
  • Speed is lethal: Most of the fatal work-zone wrecks took place on roads where the speed limit was over 50 mph.
  • Vehicles can’t stop instantly. At 50 mph, it takes:

    — Dry road, 300 feet

    — Wet road, 400 feet

    — A loaded 80,000-pound tractor-trailer rig takes almost 50 percent more distance to stop,

    — Higher speeds don’t save much time; it takes just 25 seconds more to travel a mile at 45 mph than at 65 mph.

New driving patterns

Drivers accustomed to old routes may suddenly encounter something unexpected in a work zone: different traffic patterns, narrow or closed lanes, traffic slowdowns, and construction equipment and workers. Caution and vigilance are the keys to safety. Slow down and pay attention to signs, cones and flaggers to avoid damage to vehicles and expensive construction equipment, prevent injuries and save lives. Remember: Traffic fines double in work zones.

In 2016, 39 percent of highway contractors nationwide reported that motor vehicles had crashed in their construction work zones during the previous 12 months, the Associated General Contractors of America said. These crashes were far more likely to injure drivers or passengers (44 percent) or kill them (12 percent) than construction workers. But those in the hard hats were at risk too — 18 percent of the crashes injured a work crew member, and 6 percent ended with a fatality. Motorists can improve their odds by slowing down and paying attention; work crews can do the same with proper use of safety gear and safe practices when they’re on the job.

Motorists hold the key to safety

When it comes to what’s important for highway safety, drivers are No. 1. Those behind the wheel should be cautious, keep an eye on the speedometer and watch for sudden stops or changes in traffic.

The list of causes contributing to road construction-zone wrecks includes speeding; distractions like texting, cell phone use or twiddling with the radio or some other gadget; weariness; inattention; and aggressive driving. Don’t tailgate! Keep healthy space between you and the next vehicle to avoid rear-end collisions. An alert driver who’s watching for signs, not exceeding the posted speed limit and paying attention to changing traffic patterns keeps everyone safer. As the ATSSA puts it, “Don’t Be THAT Driver. Work on Safety. Get Home Safely. Every Day.”

Work-zone accidents also can force temporary construction shutdowns, seriously affecting road completion schedules and costs. In May 2016, 77 percent of the 870 contractors responding to the Associated General Contractors’ survey believed motor vehicle crashes in construction zones were a greater risk than they were a decade ago; 82 percent thought stricter enforcement of existing laws would reduce the number of these crashes, injuries and deaths.

Plan, don’t fume

Drivers should plan ahead and leave a little earlier than usual when they know they’ll be traveling through a work zone. Work-zone delays can be frustrating, but being patient during those few extra minutes will get you where you’re going safety.

Keep up with Alaska roadway conditions with these resources:

  • ADOT&PF posts weekly updates of construction areas and how drivers will be affected at www.alaskanavigator.org.
  • The Alaska 511 system provides information on statewide road conditions including road closures, emergency and weather alerts. Call 511 or go to 511.alaska.gov, @alaska511 on Twitter, or www.facebook.com/Alaska511.

The Associated General Contractors of Alaska urge all motorists to stay vigilant, slow down and exercise caution when driving through work zones, and obey signs and flaggers’ instructions. Everyone on the road shares responsibility for keeping work zones safe — motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and construction workers alike.