Work zone crashes and fatalities have spiked in some states during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the drop in traffic, alarming transportation and highway safety officials.
Workers patching potholes, striping roads, directing traffic or building highways are more at risk than ever, they say, as drivers zoom through work zones or are preoccupied chatting or texting on their phones.
Travel on all roads and streets dropped 40% in April and 26% in May, compared with last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But fatal crashes increased in some states. And while traffic volume has picked back up in recent months, work zone crews still are encountering speeders and more-distracted drivers.
“Speeding has really come to the forefront during COVID. People are going much too fast,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director at the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “In work zones, that’s the worst thing we can have happen.”
It’s been particularly deadly in Michigan, where in just one week in September, vehicles struck three county employees and a state contractor in separate incidents, killing two.
“Last year, there were three worker fatalities, total. To have two fatalities and four hits within a week is very alarming,” said Courtney Bates, a Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson. “It’s crazy.”
And it’s not just workers who get hurt. Drivers and passengers also suffer. In 2018, the latest data available, there were 672 fatal crashes in work zones and 755 deaths. Only 124 were workers, according to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, which collects federal data.
Many other work zone crashes result in injuries. In 2018, there were an estimated 123,000 work zone crashes and 45,000 people injured.
Work zones are particularly dangerous because of daily changes in traffic patterns, narrowed rights-of-way and other construction activities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Crews work close to moving traffic — sometimes just a few feet away.
And during the pandemic, when traffic has been lighter, many transportation departments have stepped up maintenance, repairs and construction.
“If you’re patching a pothole or doing a pavement repair, the only thing between you and traffic coming at 80 miles an hour may be a traffic cone,” said Becky Allmeroth, chief safety and operations officer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “If you have one driver distracted by their cellphone, it’s fatal.”
Highway safety officials in many states have seen an increase in motorists caught speeding more than 100 mph in recent months. In work zones, they say, it’s even more alarming.
In eastern Oregon, a state patrol officer clocked a car in April going 104 mph in a posted 50 mph construction zone. The driver ran off the roadway.
Last month, a trooper in Johnston County, North Carolina, chased a motorist who was driving 187 mph through a work zone on Interstate 95. Officers put stop sticks at an exit to block him.
“Things happen quickly,” said Fischer of the governors’ safety group. “There are lanes being changed. There are vehicles coming in and out. There are narrow lanes and concrete barriers. And there are people working there.”
Among some of the deadly work zone crashes during the pandemic:
Many transportation departments try to protect their road workers by using truck-mounted attenuators — big crash cushions mounted on the back of trucks or on trailers that are designed to absorb energy from a colliding vehicle and reduce damage and injuries.
Employees typically pull them up them behind maintenance or construction crews and keep an eye out for any traffic headed toward the work zone.
In Missouri, state officials have seen a jump in the number of vehicles crashing into attenuators during the pandemic, according to the DOT’s Allmeroth. Last year, there were 21 by this time; this year, there have been 41.
“It gets us very nervous,” she said. “It really is a crisis. Our drivers and employees are getting injured. Some have been sent to the hospital. And we’re seeing quite a few members of the public getting injured.”
In August, for example, an 18-wheeler moving at more than 70 mph hit an attenuator with an employee in the truck. She was hospitalized and had to undergo surgery, Allmeroth said.
A total of 18 people were killed in work zone crashes in Missouri last year, but 23 have died in just the first nine months of this year, despite the reduced traffic, according to Allmeroth.
In 2019, Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed “Lyndon’s Law,” which allows the state to revoke the driver’s license of anyone who hits a highway or utility worker in a work zone or an emergency responder in an emergency zone. The bill was named for Lyndon Ebker, a long-time state DOT employee who was struck and killed in a work zone by a distracted driver in 2016.
Every state has “move over” laws that that require drivers to slow down or switch lanes if possible when they pass emergency vehicles and, in many states, tow trucks and transportation maintenance vehicles. Failing to comply can result in fines, and in some states, jail time.
But police say it’s hard to enforce such laws in work zones, which often have narrow lanes that sometimes weave in and out.
“There’s no way for us to sit in a work zone and enforce traffic laws,” said Sgt. Nathan Dennis, an Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesperson, “because typically they’re down to one lane and sometimes there’s a barrier wall.”
In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Transportation started setting up automated systems with cameras and radar in March that detect and record motorists exceeding work zone speed limits by 11 mph or more, when workers are present. As of Sept. 9, the department has issued 60,000 violation notices, spokesperson Alexis Campbell said. About 12% were repeat violators.
In Ohio, which has had 3,286 work zone crashes so far this year, officials set up air enforcement zones in 12 construction areas. DOT workers paint white lines at those highway work zones spaced out every quarter mile. A state patrol pilot uses them to calculate how fast a vehicle is traveling and radios down to a trooper, who will stop the car and write a ticket.
Ohio has seen an increase in fatal crashes, from nine this time last year to 14 this year, according to DOT spokesperson Matt Bruning. Five road workers — none of them DOT employees — have been killed as of October, up from two last year.
Nearly two dozen state workers have been struck since mid-February, Bruning said. Two weeks ago, a bridge inspector in the Akron area who had gotten out of his vehicle to look at a culvert heard a screech and turned around to see a car coming right at him, Bruning said. It slammed into him, throwing him 15 feet into the air. He was hurt, but not seriously.
“People are driving faster. They’re not paying attention. That’s why we’re seeing what we’re seeing,” Bruning said. “You’d think with fewer people on the roads things would be safer. But there are more severe crashes. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating.”