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It's you we worry about in work zones

You've no doubt heard the message many times: slow down and pay attention when driving through a work zone. But here's a reason you may not have heard before: in the majority of work zone accidents, the person who gets hurt is the motorist, not t...

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Duluth News Tribune file photo

You've no doubt heard the message many times: slow down and pay attention when driving through a work zone. But here's a reason you may not have heard before: in the majority of work zone accidents, the person who gets hurt is the motorist, not the worker.

It's true. According to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, two out of three victims in work zone crashes in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available) were drivers or their passengers.

That's not to say we don't worry about our employees and those of our contractors. These are hardworking, good people and we take every precaution to keep them safe on the job site, including specialized training and reflective clothing.

Our simple goal is for everyone to arrive safely at their destination. For motorists traveling through a work zone, that means getting from point A to point B. For workers, it means returning home at the end of their work day.

It's easy to think a work-zone accident couldn't happen to you. But in the last five years in St. Louis County, there have been 113 crashes in work zones. As a result of those crashes, one person died and 37 were hurt.

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So my best advice for motorists is to slow down and pay attention. Please, please, please put down your phone to lessen your chances of being distracted. And even when slower speed limits are posted, or when traffic seems to be moving at a crawl, stay alert for vehicles in front of you that may brake suddenly.

It's not just other vehicles that create risk in work zones. It can be the work that's being done leaves less margin for error. A typical road has many protective features, such as guardrails, wide shoulders, clearly marked lanes and reflective signs. But in a work zone, those safety features are often not there. So it's important to leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead of you to allow yourself more time to react.

St. Louis County Public Works, which has already had a remarkably busy three years of rebuilding and repairs following the 2012 flood, is now even busier with ambitious plans to invest $119 million in our county's roads and bridges during this construction season and next. That means there will be a lot of work zones as we work to improve 420 miles of infrastructure.

In Duluth, Hermantown and surrounding townships, expect to see construction on Arlington Avenue later this year and on Fourth Street, Midway Road and many others next year. Repaving work on Martin Road is already underway.

When you see flaggers with the "Slow/Stop" sign, follow the directions they give. With increasing frequency, we hear from our staff and contractors about drivers who deliberately ignore the signs and drive around the flagger. Not only is this dangerous, it's illegal and puts everyone in the work zone at risk. Our crews do their best to record license plate numbers when it happens and we do report them to law enforcement.

The road construction season isn't all that long. (Our other season, winter, seems to last a lot longer.) So if you find yourself delayed slightly by construction, stay calm and alert, take a deep breath, be thankful you're not driving in a blizzard and remember that soon enough the project will be done and you will have a smoother, safer road on which to travel.

Jim Foldesi is the St. Louis County Public Works director.

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