By Dean Narciso
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Friday, April 10, 2009
Neon-color vests, hazard lights and even roadblocks won’t slow down some drivers.
As another construction season kicks off, road crews, transportation engineers and police want that to change, so they kicked off a public-awareness campaign yesterday that includes lighting all Ohio Department of Transportation district offices in orange at night.
There were 15 work-zone fatalities on Ohio highways and state routes last year and more than 1,500 crashes, said Lisa Zigmund, an ODOT traffic engineer.
No construction workers were killed. In fact, the last two worker deaths on a state road project occurred in 2003, said Nancy Burton, ODOT spokeswoman.
Those figures don’t include municipal projects, however. And workers don’t want the public to dismiss the dangers.
During 12 years as a Columbus road-construction inspector, Drew Sheffield has seen people plow through orange barrels, screech their brakes to within feet of a tragedy and sink their cars into wet concrete.
“When you’re in a work zone, it’s not the time to be jockeying for a lane, talking on the phone or speeding,” he said yesterday as he stood near the ongoing construction along Morse Road. The $15 million-plus overhaul, to be completed next year, includes streetlights, sidewalks, bike paths, median plantings and storm sewers.
Sheffield recalled a motorist so happy that James Road was finally complete a few years ago that he drove between two blockades to try it out.
To the driver’s dismay, the concrete had just been poured.
“A $33,000 Mercedes does no better in fresh concrete than a Dodge Dart,” Sheffield said. “Generally, if you get stuck, the workers will come and help you out.”
One of Sheffield’s colleagues is still recuperating years after a driver struck him as he was working on the South Campus Gateway project in the University District.
Police, who often patrol work zones, are especially frustrated by the risks, said Columbus Police Lt. Ed Devennish of the police traffic bureau.
“We’re a hurry-up society,” he said. “I want to get there now, and to hell with anybody else.
“I was more scared on the freeway than I ever was in SWAT,” he said of his police tactical work.
Gov. Ted Strickland’s recently approved transportation budget originally included several traffic-safety provisions, including cameras to catch speeders in construction zones. It also required drivers to use headlights in the rain and permission for police to stop drivers who aren’t wearing seat belts. Senate Republicans removed the provisions, however, saying they were too intrusive.
Devennish advises motorists to map out alternate routes to bypass work zones.
“Columbus has a pretty good network of roads,” he said. “You have to be willing to explore a little bit.”
Alcohol- or drug-impaired drivers pose special risks, said the head of Franklin County’s DUI Task Force.
“For some reason they get fixated on the lights flashing and sort of drift that way,” said Carl Booth, describing studies that show how drunken drivers veer toward, not away from, hazard lights.