Work zone safety a concern for town, state road crews

Road crew safety has been a cause for concern with 71 car strikes on crews in Connecticut so far in 2024.

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Work zone safety a concern for town, state road crews

“When a worker is killed by an impaired driver at 9 o’clock in the morning while picking up litter tossed out car windows, we have a much greater crisis on our hands.” — Garrett Eucalitto, state Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner

SHARON — An agitated driver recently ignored commands from a member of the town’s highway department to stop during a roadway construction project. Instead, the motorist maneuvered around the work zone.

“He got angry and drove off the road and popped two tires,” said Casey Flanagan, Sharon’s First Selectman. “I have heard stories that people are speeding through our work zones, or they get impatient or agitated because they need to stop,” he said.

Just recently, Flanagan noted, a worker on the road crew reported that “somebody stuck their middle finger up at the guys” as they drove through the work zone. “It’s really unfair. They are just doing their job and they want to keep the traffic moving.”

With road construction and paving projects in full swing and following the recent deaths of three workers on Connecticut roadways in the past two months, state and local officials are pleading with drivers to slow down and pay attention when approaching work zones. Poor driving habits like speeding, inattentiveness and operating a motor vehicle while impaired are not only dangerous, they noted, but they can have deadly consequences to both the worker and the driver.

On Wednesday, July 3, there was a close call on Route 8 in Litchfield when a motorist in the northbound lane veered off the road and crashed into an unmanned state Department of Transportation (DOT) vehicle as workers were out mowing. The driver sustained minor injuries and was issued an infraction for failure to maintain proper lane, according to Connecticut State Police.

The accident occurred less than 24 hours after Gov. Ned Lamont and state DOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto gave a press conference on work zone safety, and one week after a state DOT worker was fatally struck by a suspected impaired driver while picking up litter along an on ramp in Wallingford.

According to state public safety officials, there were 14 strikes on work zone crews by vehicles during June, and 71 strikes on crews to date this year as of July 2. In 2023, DOT reported 141 crashes into work trucks, despite enhanced signage and warnings.

From 2020 to 2022, there were more than 2,500 crashes and 10 fatalities in work zones, according to state officials.

“This crisis needs everyone’s attention,” Eucalitto said. “When a worker is killed by an impaired driver at 9 o’clock in the morning while picking up litter tossed out car windows, we have a much greater crisis on our hands.”

To combat speeding through work zones, from April to December 2023, DOT ran a Work Zone Speed Camera pilot program. During that period, 541,920 vehicles were found speeding in work zones, according to DOT spokesperson Samaia Hernandez. Written warnings were issued by mail to 24,875 drivers, and citations for repeat violations were issued to 724 drivers.

The program, said Lamont during the press conference, will become permanent at work zones around the state. “We will see how fast you are going into that work site and see what you are doing on the way out. We will take a picture of your license plate and you will be held accountable.”

Speed on rural roads a major concern

Work zone dangers are not lost on town highway crews in the rural Northwest Corner.

Speed is their biggest concern, followed by distracted driving and aggressive behavior, according to highway department workers.

“We definitely see a lot of speeding,” and drivers on their cell phones, reported Russell Hoage crew chief for the Salisbury Highway Department. “They just don’t slow down.” Most roads have a 30 to 35 posted speed limit, he said, and it’s not unusual to see drivers whizzing by work zones at 40 to 45 miles per hour.

To help buffer road crews from oncoming traffic, the town highway department often uses dump trucks as protective crash barriers, the road crew chief noted.

Hoage said he is at a loss as to why some drivers fail to see the danger they are posing to themselves and to highway personnel. “I don’t know if people are just not aware of the danger, of if they just don’t care.”

Road foreman Rick Osborne, who has been with the Kent Highway Department for 27 years, said electric cars often catch road crews by surprise. “You can’t hear them coming, so they quickly sneak right up on you. And depending on the equipment being operated, it’s sometimes hard to hear oncoming traffic.”

He also noted that the suspensions on newer cars could be making higher speeds less noticeable to drivers.

Osborne said the department has enhanced its safety measures, including posting warning signs and reflective cones as far out as possible, especially where there are curves in the roads leading to work zones.

“If the cleaning crew is out, we park a truck between them and the approaching traffic, and never work behind the truck” to avoid a worker from being pinned between the vehicles, the Kent road foreman explained.

Then there are the drivers who are just plain rude. “Just the other day one of our guys waved to a driver to slow down,” Osborne recalled. “The driver stopped and said, ‘You can’t tell me to slow down or not to slow down!’”

‘Always expect the unexpected’

At the North Canaan Public Works Department, Stanley Morby said he’s seen drivers go to great lengths to get through a construction zone. “We recently had North Elm closed, and had drivers go right by the barriers, thinking there may only be a tree down or something, and they had to turn around and go back.”

His words of advice to drivers are to “slow down and pay attention to your surroundings, no different than if you see a couple of kids walking down the side of the road. Always expect the unexpected.”

Sharon’s first selectman said the heightened dangers facing road crews will spur future conversations about what the town can do to enhance worker safety.

“It’s unsafe for motorists as well,” Flanagan noted. “Sometimes there’s tree work being done, with limbs falling from a 50-foot height and somebody will run through the stop sign from the guys directing traffic. Someone can get really seriously hurt. We need patience from people.”

Flanagan suggested that drivers allow a little extra time if they are heading to work or to an appointment and expect to be traveling through a work zone. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “a lot of the work we do is between working hours when people are commuting.”

Lamont had this message for drivers: “We have thousands of people working along the sides of roads right now. I need folks to look out for each other. I need you to say to somebody who is driving a car that shouldn’t be driving a car to pull over. I need you to say if somebody is busy texting and not paying attention, stop it. We’re doing everything we can as a state to take the lead on this, but the rest really is up to you.”

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