By Pete Kotowski
Spring marks the start of road construction season. It is a time when motorists face lane closures, speed reductions, and road workers and equipment operating close to moving traffic. If drivers are inattentive road work can result in crashes that kill or injure road workers and motorists.
National Work Zone Awareness Week is April 11-15 —a time to recognize the hazards of traveling in and around work zones. The NTSB has a long history of promoting work zone safety. I recall the agency conducting a safety study in 1988, involving the investigation of more than 40 work zone accidents. In 1992, we completed the study, Highway Work Zone Safety, which contained safety recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration to address commercial motor vehicles traveling in work zones. We also issued recommendations to enhance speed compliance and traffic control within work zones following the investigation of a 1990 crash in West Virginia.
The number of deaths occurring in highway work zones has been declining. Work zone crashes and fatal work zone crashes have decreased in recent years because of improvements in advanced warning technologies, better traffic control devices, lighting enhancements and improved monitoring of work zone traffic. But more work remains to be done, particularly in regards to commercial vehicles traveling within work zones and so the NTSB continues its efforts to make work zones safer. While commercial vehicles account for only 4.5 percent of all registered vehicles in the United States, they are involved in 11.2 percent of all fatal accidents and 28 percent of all fatal work zone crashes.
I led an investigation of a 2014 work zone crash in Cranbury, New Jersey, involving a commercial motor vehicle (which the media dubbed “the Tracy Morgan” crash). Our investigation found that the commercial vehicle was speeding in a nighttime work zone when it encountered slow-moving traffic in advance of a lane closure. The fatigued driver failed to perceive the slowing traffic until it was too late to do anything. The commercial vehicle struck the rear of a limo van, and this impact began a chain-reaction collision involving four other vehicles. One of the limo van occupants died, and nine other people were injured in the crash.
The NTSB made safety recommendations to mitigate commercial vehicle involvement in work zone crashes, calling for the implementation of traffic control strategies and devices to reduce crash events involving heavy commercial vehicles. The recommendations also addressed fatigue management programs and occupant protection improvements. Promoting collision avoidance technologies and addressing fatigue and occupant protection safety are all issues on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.
Work zones are becoming safer because of the use of new technologies and more efficient traffic management. However, until we make more headway against the over-involvement of commercial vehicles in fatal work zone crashes, the road construction season will remain a dangerous time, requiring motorists to be especially attentive to the driving task.
Pete Kotowski is a Senior Accident Investigator in the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.