Work Zone Safety: The Rising Danger Facing Workers AND Drivers


work zone safety

We’re in the peak season for deadly crashes in road-work zones, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s Work Zone Management Program, which found that such fatalities happen more frequently between May and September. You may have seen billboards, PSAs or even memorials reminding you to drive carefully to help protect road workers. But you may not be aware that many of the people killed in work zone crashes are not workers – they’re actually drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

In The Zebra’s home state of Texas, drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians made up 96 percent of work zone deaths in 2016, according to the state Department of Transportation. Further, the state’s total number of work zone fatalities increased 27 percent last year.

Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians made up 96 percent of work zone deaths in TX in 2016.

“You might think (the roadside workers) are the more vulnerable and the more likely to be killed or injured,” transportation department spokesperson Dave Glessner says. “People think that we tout work zone safety on behalf of the roadside workers, but, in fact, the numbers point to drivers being the victims more often than not. So this is very much a public service announcement on behalf of the traveling public as much as it is the roadside workers.”

What’s behind this increase? Glessner cites a variety of possible factors. Texas’ population is booming, which leads to more drivers on the road. That increase in drivers, in turn, spurs the need for more road improvement and construction projects. And then there’s the dangerous nationwide problem of distracted driving.

“It’s probably a combination of a lot of things that are associated with growth and technology and just people being busy and in a hurry,” Glessner says.

In Texas, the two leading causes of fatalities in work zones last year were speeding and failure to stay in a single lane, Glessner says. “A lot of it boils down to driver inattention.”

The Lone Star State isn’t the only one experiencing problems with work zone safety.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, 4,400 people died in work zone crashes over the past five years. A survey of contractors who work on road projects found that 44 percent of respondents experienced vehicle crashes in their work zones in 2016. Half of those crashes resulted in injuries. Nine out of 10 contractors surveyed felt that such crashes are a serious safety hazard, and three out of four said the danger is greater today than it was a decade ago.

rainy work zone highway

Staying Safe in Work Zones

To keep yourself, other drivers and road workers safe, put some space between your car and work zones, Glessner advises.

“Move Over” Laws

Forty-three states now have “move over” laws to protect law enforcement, emergency responders and workers on the roads.

In Texas, for example, when drivers approach work crews, emergency vehicles, or tow trucks stopped on the roadside or shoulder with flashing blue or amber lights, they are required to move over from the lane closest to the vehicle or slow down, Glessner says. Yield as much room as safely possible to these vehicles, he adds. (Check this map for specifics about move over laws in your state.)

Besides following move-over laws, motorists should remember that work zones present a different driving environment than they are typically used to, Glessner says. When you’re approaching a work zone, be prepared for lane changes, changes in speed limit, rerouting or slowing down or stopping based on flaggers’ instructions.

“Drivers need to give their full attention to the road, the signs and the instructions they are being given by the roadside workers,” Glessner says. It’s especially important to be vigilant at night, he adds.

You should also be extra-mindful to avoid distracted driving when you’re in a work zone. Remember that your phone isn’t the only distraction that can cause an accident. Everything from eating a snack to looking over at your passenger to feeling drowsy can impair your driving. (Need more tips on how to avoid common distractions? Check out our reports on Distracted Driving.)

work zone safety stop sign

Driving Tips for Work Zone Safety

The Federal Highway Administration offers these additional tips on driving safely through work zones:

  • Keep your headlights on.
  • Watch for brake lights ahead of you.
  • Don’t tailgate.
  • Brace yourself in case another driver slows, stops or changes lanes unexpectedly.
  • Be prepared to drive even more slowly than reduced-speed signs indicate if conditions warrant.
  • Allow more stopping distance on icy or wet roadways.
  • Merge as soon as you safely can when you know a lane closure is ahead; don’t wait until the last second.
  • Be aware that traffic patterns in the same work zone can change daily.

Remember that the area where work is taking place isn’t the only one where you should exercise increased caution. Accidents also happen in the Advance Warning Area (where you start seeing signs about work ahead), the Transition Area (where traffic starts to move out of the normal path), and the Termination Area (where traffic returns to its normal flow).

And, of course, the best way to avoid work zone crashes is to avoid driving through work zones at all. Besides traffic reports from your local news media, you can check the Federal Highway Administration’s map of road conditions nationwide. Traffic apps like Waze can also warn you about construction ahead.

Tips for Cyclists and Pedestrians

Drivers aren’t the only ones who should exercise extra care in work zones. The Federal Highway Administration gives these tips for pedestrians and bicyclists:

  • Be prepared for construction vehicles to move suddenly and quickly.
  • Don’t get so caught up in watching the construction work that you forget about safety.
  • Keep an eye out for signs and pavement markings that show your safest path through the area.

While work zones can be dangerous for the workers and the motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians who use the roads, all can minimize the danger by driving cautiously and staying aware of their surroundings.