Flying glass, spinning lights and the crushing weight of a 4,000-pound vehicle slamming into roadside crews and a vehicle pulled to the shoulder. It’s a scene we see far too often in clearly marked work and emergency zones along the highway, and lately it’s only gotten worse.
“It’s a hostile environment working out on the highways,” Josh Stuckey, one of the Washington State Department of Transportation Incident Response Team drivers, said. “We are standing right next to traffic flying by us at 50, 60 even 70 miles per hour. I can’t stress enough how important it is that drivers pay attention. We are out there protecting your loved ones, but remember, we are someone’s loved one too.”
Just in the past few months, WSDOT has seen a flagger killed, an off-duty Seattle Police officer killed while helping a stranded driver, a Washington State Patrol officer hit by a driver in a stolen car, a tow truck operator who lost a leg in a work-zone crash and another tow driver was killed along with two people he was assisting.
In May, one of WSDOT’s Incident Response Team drivers was seriously hurt on I-405 in Bothell when a driver struck his truck in a lane closed to traffic. Police say the driver was impaired. This same IRT worker has been hit three times since 2016 while responding to drivers needing help on the highway.
“The people who work on our roadways, ferry docks and bridges are giving their best to make things safer for the traveling public,” Washington State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste said. “They shouldn’t have to be giving up their safety, and in some cases their very lives, as well.”
It seems a daily occurrence that WSDOT receives reports of another close call or worse with road crews and emergency response workers. We take each new report personally as these are not just our co-workers but also our friends. We need you to do the same.
Many WSDOT workers have encountered close calls, suffered serious injuries or even died in our work zones. The department averages more than 100 vehicles or workers struck by third-party drivers every year and it’s hard to find any of the road workers who hasn’t had an injury or numerous close calls.
“We’re seeing far too many dangerous situations on our roadways,” Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar said. “Each of these are tragedies that affect roadway crews, their co-workers, families and friends. This can’t continue.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports Washington state had 557 highway traffic fatalities in 2020, a 3% increase from 2019 even with drastically reduced traffic due to the pandemic.
Crews work within feet or even inches of fast-moving traffic, trying to keep everyone safe. WSDOT focuses on their safety by planning and equipping them to do their job, but the department needs the public’s help. Driving safely is everybody’s responsibility.
So, what can you do? WSDOT asks all drivers in and near work zones to:
- Slow down – drive the posted speeds, they’re there for your safety.
- Be kind – our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways.
- Pay attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic.
- Stay calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.
“Traffic whizzing by hardly fazes me anymore,” Stuckey said. “But I do notice when someone slows down or moves over, and I have to say we really appreciate it. We need that buffer between us assisting someone on the highway and the traffic going by.”
By the numbers
Despite a significant decrease in vehicles and work zones on the road for several months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of collisions in work zones remained high, and that has continued into 2021. And while roadway workers are at risk in work zone crashes, they’re not the only ones: 94.4% of Washington roadway work zone fatalities and injuries were to drivers, their passengers or people in other passing vehicles.
Impaired and distracted driving in work zones
One of the most significant factors WSDOT has seen in recent work-zone collisions are drivers who are impaired or driving under the influence. A recent study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reports that 50% of roadway fatalities are due to impaired driving and on average 149 people die each summer due to these types of collisions.
Another contributing factor to work zone collisions on the highways is distracted driving.
According to the Traffic Safety Commission’s 2020 Distracted Driving Observation Survey, the statewide distracted driver rate increased from 6.8 percent in 2019 to 9.4 percent last year. The increases included all types of driver distraction, not just hand-held cell phone use.
Distracted or inattentive driving is one of the top three leading causes of work-zone crashes on state highways. WSDOT crews say they regularly see drivers looking at phones or other devices and blowing past signs about slowing down or stopping – which puts everyone on the road at risk.
Chief Batiste urges drivers to take responsibility on the road. “Safe roads are everybody’s business,” he said. “Slow down, never drive impaired and pay attention to the road in front of you.”
Move Over, Slow Down law
While many work zones are scheduled ahead of time and have pre-planned traffic control in place, WSDOT also has emergency work that requires crews to be on highway shoulders or lanes next to active traffic. State law requires motorists to move over one lane if possible whenever passing emergency crews on highway shoulders. If moving over isn’t possible, then drivers must slow to 10 mph below the posted speed limit.
The Move Over, Slow Down law applies to more than just law enforcement or fire trucks, it also includes WSDOT Incident Response Trucks as well as highway maintenance vehicles, tow trucks and solid waste trucks and utility trucks – as long as they’re displaying flashing lights.
So, the next time you’re out on the road and you see the flashing lights of a patrol car or one of WSDOT’s IRT trucks, take a moment to move over or slow down. You might just save a life; it could even be your own.
— By Jordan Longacre
Washington State Department of Transportation