Temperatures are rising, the ice and snow melted away weeks ago, and everything has taken on an undeniably greener hue.
It’s enough to make a professional driver shudder. These are the signs of construction season.
Pylons are now multiplying at a rapid rate along the nation’s highways, reshaping routes and contributing to overall traffic congestion.
Seasonal safety hazards have emerged in the process. Narrowing lanes, added distractions and slow-moving work vehicles all contribute to collisions, injuries and deaths.
Every year, about 40 people are killed and 2,000 are injured in work zone crashes, according to Characteristics of Work Zone Crashes and Fatalities in Canada. Most of the collisions even occur in clear conditions, but the crashes at night tend to be the most severe. (Researchers believe the threats under the cover of darkness could be linked to factors such as higher average speeds).
The danger is no less severe south of the border. There were 609 motor vehicle fatalities in US construction work zones in 2012 alone, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And from 2003 to 2007, about 70% of the US fatalities took place between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Large trucks are actually involved in more than their share of resulting work zone fatalities, too.
Between 2000 and 2008, one in every four work zone fatalities involved a truck, according to the US Federal Highway Administration. To put this into perspective, large trucks were involved in only 12% of all highway fatalities in general.
At first glance, it can seem strange that work zones present such a threat, particularly since so many of the problems happen when conditions are clear.
These stretches of highway are supposed to be designed with safety and visibility in mind.
Advance warnings are provided in the form of lower posted speed limits, transition zones are planned to give enough room for drivers to change lanes, and buffer areas offer a space where the lanes merge.
Each stretch of highway is well defined before a vehicle enters the work area itself.
There is even a steep price to pay for speeding through the zones. The related fines in these work areas are typically multiples of those imposed on other stretches of highway. Besides that, there isn’t much to be gained by ignoring the lower speeds. A vehicle travelling at 105 km/h will save less than a minute – a mere 52 seconds – when travelling through a three-kilometre work zone, when compared to a driver travelling 70 km/h.
Still, any change in speeds and lanes will require an extra focus. Some surrounding motorists see warning signs about an approaching work zone as an invitation to speed up and jockey for a better position in a transition area.
Once in the work zone itself, they can be distracted by such things as moving equipment rather than maintaining an appropriate following distance. The threats even continue where the work zone comes to an end. When reaching this spot known as the termination area, many motorists seem to race back to highway speeds right away, giving little thought to the traffic or other remaining hazards around them.
It all requires added vigilance from those in the driver’s seat.
The good news is that the elevated view from a truck cab can provide advance warning about the approaching work, leaving room to find an appropriate lane and warn surrounding drivers with hazard lights.
Trip planning techniques can also help drivers prepare for these areas long before they approach a roadside sign. Details about ongoing highway construction projects, for example, are often just a click away. Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation offers detail about such work at www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/traveller/trip. Information about US projects can be found at www.HighwayConditions.com.
Of course, truckers who work within the zones will continue to face unique safety-related responsibilities of their own. In a study of US fatalities between 2003 and 2007, more workers were struck and killed by construction vehicles than cars, vans or tractor-trailers.
Activities in these areas require their own precautions, from following the guidance of trained traffic control personnel to wearing the appropriate reflective clothing when stepping out of the truck.
Outside the cab, it’s important to remember that about half (48%) of killed roadside construction workers were run over or backed over.
Added vigilance on everybody’s part will help to ensure that workers remain safe inside or outside the cab.
This month’s expert is Scott Creighton, manager risk services, transportation and logistics. Scott has served the trucking industry for 25 years as a driver, safety manager and in loss control and risk management services as well. Northbridge Insurance is a leading Canadian commercial insurer built on the strength of four companies with a long-standing history in the marketplace and has been serving the trucking industry for more than 60 years. You can visit them at www.nbins.com.