In 2005, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) considered ways to attack the increasing problem of tragic work zone crashes.  Its “Where Workers Present 45” campaign seems to have made a difference.

“Like transportation departments in all states, MDOT is faced with the difficult task of maintaining highways that are increasingly clogged with traffic,” says the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Associate Director Walter Jones, who testified at the state’s legislative hearings.  “In Michigan, about 20 people are killed every year in work zone crashes – the vast majority being the drivers or passengers of the vehicles that crash.  About ten percent are construction workers, mostly Laborers.”

Due to increasing traffic demand, road closures for repair are problematic.  In some areas, night work has been more widely employed, but this has additional costs and different (as well as similar) dangers.  Physical separation with barriers is generally recommended but, because of the mobile nature of roadway work, is difficult to implement in many situations.  Police presence is known to slow drivers, but it is costly and enforcement in a work zone area can add to the confusion and danger.

Thus, among these other tactics, states continue to rely on messages aimed at the motoring public that are designed to get them to slow down and pay attention in and around work zones.

“But, even that is not so simple,” says Gary Jorgensen, Michigan District Council Business Manager.  “Initially, the state’s police and engineers – citing studies that indicate that whenever drivers make sudden speed adjustments, the risk of crashes with other drivers increases – wanted to allow speeds of 60 mph in work zones.  We had to battle to get them to listen to our perspective.  Even then, their plan was to change the limit to ten mph below the highway’s posted speed limit.  In many cases, that would have meant 55 mph.”

Meanwhile, working with the “Give ‘em a Brake Safety Coalition” – an alliance of MDOT, builders’ associations and unions in which the Laborers very active – to educate the driving public, Jorgensen convinced the MDOT director (an engineer, since returned to the private sector) that she should create a media photo opportunity to dramatize the danger for road workers by setting up her desk in a highway work zone. “With cars whizzing by at 60 miles per hour, she also began to soften her support for raising the work zone speed limit,” recalls Jorgensen.  “Then, we were able to work out the compromise, agreeing to keep the speed limit at 45 but adding ‘when workers are present.’  It seems to be working.”

The new plan was implemented in 2006 and the progress is good.  Crashes in 2006 declined 20 percent from 2005.  Injuries dropped from 1,811 to 1,450 and fatalities from 20 to 18.

While he praised the progress and attributed it to the new signage, new MDOT Director Kirk T. Steudle said, “We must continue to promote work zone safety in order to reduce crashes, injuries and deaths even further.  Our goal is to make 2007 the safest yet.”

Previously, the state had enacted a series of laws to attack the work zone safety problem.  In 1997, it doubled fines for speeding in work zones.  In 2001, the state enacted “Andy’s Law” that imposes a year in prison for injuring, and up to 15 years for killing, a road construction worker.  In 2002, it increased the number of points issued for speeding in work zones (three for ten miles per hour or less over the limit, four for ten to 15 mph over and five for greater than 15 mph over).  Twelve total points necessitates a license re-examination and the possibility of a restriction, suspension or revocation.

Only after the “Where Workers Present 45” program was implemented did crashes, injuries and fatalities actually decline. More study will be needed to fully understand the success, but in the meantime, Michigan drivers will continue to slow down when workers are present and highway workers will hopefully enjoy “the safest year ever.”

[Steve Clark]