When Keith A. Jakel left home for work on March 21 this year, he had no idea that he would not return.
On that day, the 55-year-old from Highland, Illinois was working on repairs on a shoulder on US Midwestern Highway Interstate 39 when he was struck by a semi truck which had failed to merge into the left lane quickly enough and had chosen instead to drive around a Department of Transportation arrow truck by going onto the right shoulder.
Tragically, Jakel is not the first to be killed in a road construction zone, nor will he be the last. In the United States alone, figures from the Bureau of Labour Statistics indicate that approximately 100 construction workers are killed in roadway work zones every year – equating to around eight per cent of total construction deaths in that country.
Painting an even starker picture, that figure does not take into account the number of drivers and other vehicle occupants, pedestrians or bikers also killed in these zones.
So what causes these accidents? Arrive Alive, a South African organisation dedicated to reducing road deaths, has identified a number of contributory factors. Perhaps not surprisingly, the organisation says speeding traffic is the number one cause of death and injury in highway construction zones around the world.
Other contributory factors include:
- Inadequate sign posting and lighting/drivers failing to notice road workers.
- Drivers ignoring work zone signs or flaggers indicating they should slow down or come to a stop.
- Drivers being distracted by cellular phone calls/conversations/roadside activities and subsequently failing to merge properly.
- Incidents like the one that killed Jakel, in which drivers drive in the closing lane right up to the last second and then try to force themselves in, often being tempted to enter the work zone if they are unable to get across.
What can be done?
From a site management viewpoint, a number of simple measures can make a big difference.
For significant works on major freeways and highways, provision of prior notice to motorists via press, radio ads and electronic signage can encourage motorists to seek alternative routes, thus reducing the volume of traffic flowing through at the time of the works, lessening driver frustration at the scene and making drivers more aware of the likely dangers at the scene.
At the scene, signs must be clean and well-maintained, while workers should be wearing conspicuous clothing.
Traffic controllers must be adequately trained with regard to where to stand, how to slow or stop traffic, and how to coordinate public and construction traffic movements. Where visual contact with other controllers is not possible, two-way radios should be used. Controllers should be provided with temporary traffic signals to control traffic where the site is suitable and where such signals are available.
Speed limits, which should be especially vigorously enforced, should be consistent with safe traffic movements around the site. This is key, as motorists are likely to ignore any limit they perceive as being unrealistic.
Measures to prevent driver frustration, too, can help to reduce erratic behaviour. Where vehicles are held up in queues, for example, a worker might be appointed to talk with motorists, apologise for delays, give them an estimate as to how long they might be kept waiting and keep them generally informed.
Beyond vehicle control, the actual area where the work is being performed must also be kept safe. Access points leading to areas where construction blasting works are being carried out, for example, must be manned to prevent entry during blasting.
More broadly, road authorities, and perhaps construction industry bodies and unions, should engage in efforts to promote broader driver awareness with regard to construction zones and how erratic behaviour can lead to danger.
Of course, none of this matters where drivers fail to use basic common sense, as appears to have happened in the Jakel case.
Proactive measures at individual sites will go a long way toward reducing road construction zone accidents. Unless drivers themselves use common sense, however, accidents like that which killed Jakel will continue to occur and construction workers will continue to be needlessly killed at road work sites.