As part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) supports state and local governments in building and maintaining our network of roads and highways. Safety on the road is a central part of FHWA’s mission, and they are heavily involved in identifying safety needs and developing programs related to roadway safety. For example, FHWA encourages state and local Departments of Transportation (DOTs) to put in place safety countermeasures such as speed cameras, roundabouts, rumble strips and dedicated bicycle lanes.
How does FHWA encourage state and local DOT partners to implement these types of roadway safety changes? The answer: funding. Through its Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), FHWA lays out the criteria necessary to receive federal dollars to help pay for new state and local highway projects. Programs like HSIP and the funding attached to them are how FHWA, as noted on their website, “improves safety for all public roadways and road users.”
Who Are Road Users and Vulnerable Road Users?
The only problem is that by current definitions, FHWA policies don’t include all road users. FHWA defines a road user as a “motorist, passenger, public transportation operator or user, truck driver, bicyclist, motorcyclist or pedestrian, including a person with disabilities.” There’s a glaring omission from this list – roadway workers. After all, aren’t LIUNA members and other highway construction workers using the road during building and maintenance projects?
“LIUNA members are working hard to build and maintain critical road infrastructure across the country,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “They are exposed to significant hazards in highway work zones and deserve every protection available to them. Officially designating them as road users will help ensure that when roadway safety is discussed, LIUNA members and other roadway workers are part of that conversation.”
The extensive list of safety countermeasures FHWA encourages state and local DOTs to incorporate into today’s roadways are also missing any mention of roadway workers. There are entire categories of actions to protect pedestrians and bicyclists as well as measures to improve the safety of specific road features like intersections and sharp curves. There are no countermeasures listed to protect workers in highway work zones.
Under FHWA’s current definition, the agency doesn’t consider it a road until the project is complete, and until then, the workers on it don’t exist. Instead, FHWA’s focus is on protecting the traveling public who use the road after it’s done. Despite this dynamic, roadway contractors are still expected to set up work zones and manage their projects in a way that protects the traveling public while construction is underway. Those contractors and their workers deserve the same treatment.
By excluding workers from the definition of road users and limiting that definition to the traveling public, FHWA is making it more difficult for contractors and state DOTs to protect workers during road jobs. That’s because some federal funds are only accessible under HSIP if they protect certain groups of road users. For example, FWHA recently issued a memo on eligibility requirements for new funding available under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That memo covers funding for special safety projects to protect “vulnerable road users” (VRUs). FHWA defines a VRU as a nonmotorist with a fatality analysis reporting system (FARS) code of “pedestrian, bicyclist, other cyclist or person on personal conveyance.”
Again, there’s no mention of roadway workers. Anyone who has ever watched a flagger doing traffic control or seen a worker laying asphalt along a busy interstate with traffic flying by at 65 miles an hour knows how vulnerable those workers are. Work zone intrusions and other traffic-related incidents continue to be one of the most common ways LIUNA members and other road workers are injured or killed on the job.
The Impact of Excluding Road Workers
There’s no doubt pedestrians and cyclists are vulnerable road users and that specific measures can be taken to redesign and update our road infrastructure to better protect them. Under the current narrow definition, it’s possible for a state DOT to get funding to redesign a dangerous intersection or add a lane to separate bicyclists from cars along a busy road, but no additional funding would be available to protect the highway workers building those projects.
Roadway workers are vulnerable road users, plain and simple. They are exposed to significant hazards during road construction, repair and maintenance activities. Many of the safety measures it takes to protect them are almost identical to the steps FHWA advocates for in its safe system approach for protecting vulnerable road users – separating motorists from other road users, reducing vehicle speed to match the environment and increasing visibility of people at risk.
In 2016, FHWA joined the National Safety Council’s (NSC) Road to Zero coalition, which aims to achieve zero fatalities on our nation’s roadways, where more than 38,000 people lose their lives each year. To achieve that goal, we must protect every single person on the road, including roadway workers. The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America is also an active member of the NSC’s Road to Zero coalition, and the NSC’s position is that roadway workers are vulnerable road users.
It’s time for FHWA to explicitly include roadway construction workers in their definition of vulnerable road users and create specific targets and strategies to better protect them, just as they’ve shown a willingness to do for other at-risk groups on our nation’s roadways.