ANNAPOLIS – When a dump truck ran over and killed 52-year-old road worker Walter Ludlam as he painted a center line on Route 40 in Ellicott City late on the night of April 15, it was a rare work zone accident where a worker was the casualty.
Rarer still, Ludlam was not run down by a speeding or inattentive motorist, but by a fellow worker, presumably trained to be aware of the importance of work zone safety.
Hazards come in many forms in work zones, but more to drivers than to workers, according to the State Highway Administration. A record number of people are killed nationally in highway work zones as beleaguered motorists disregard posted speed limits and safety signs.
About 80 percent of all fatalities in work zone crashes are motor vehicle occupants, said David Buck, SHA spokesman.
Drivers say work zones — the Beltway bridge reconstruction around Georgia Avenue, for example — add an element of great danger and increased frustration to an already tedious commute.
“It’s a nightmare up there,” said Drew Hackmann, 29, a systems analyst from Alexandria, Va., who commutes to Bethesda twice a week. “I leave at 6 a.m. and I can never avoid a mess. I feel like I’m in a video game sometimes, trying to avoid the (merging) cars.”
There were more than 2,750 crashes in Maryland work zones in 2000, the latest data available from the SHA, up about 33 percent from the previous year. Work zone fatalities in the state rose from 11 to 15 in the same period.
Mostly because of the overall boom in highway projects, fatal wrecks in work zones have increased sharply, with a record 1,093 people killed nationally in 2000, up 39 percent from 1999.
About half of those killed die when no work is going on, lulled into complacency by lack of activity and ignoring posted cautions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
There were 57 fatal crashes in Maryland work zones from 1996-2000, resulting in 63 fatalities, according to SHA data.
Route 50, the state’s primary beach conduit, had the most work zone fatalities recently — four crashes resulting in six fatalities from 1998 to 2000, according to data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Three of those accidents occurred on the Eastern Shore.
Nationally, deaths in work zones have risen steadily since 1998, when Congress passed a six-year $203 billion bill to fund highway construction and mass transit, an increase of 40 percent over the previous six years.
Plus, traffic volume increases about 2 to 3 percent each year, the SHA said. Traffic in the Baltimore and Washington areas grew 109 percent from 1980 to 1999.
Maryland has about 200 work zone projects in progress. The SHA has little choice, given Maryland’s traffic volume, but to conduct most of them — about 75 to 80 percent — at night, Buck said. That increases the risk of serious accidents.
From 1998 to 2000, 51 percent of work zone fatalities in Maryland occurred in non-daylight hours, compared to just 31 percent from 1996 to 1997, according to NHTSA data.
“Construction work zones are an inevitable part of the process as we move aggressively to improve Maryland’s transportation network,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari at an April 9 ceremony in Capitol Heights honoring National Work Zone Safety Week.
The state is in the midst of the largest highway construction program in its history, Porcari said, and drivers need to be careful when traveling through work zones.
AAA Mid-Atlantic has increased its work zone safety education efforts, offering tips on its Web site and adding the issue to its driver education curriculum, said spokeswoman Myra Wieman.
Speeding and driver inattentiveness are the biggest causes of work zone accidents, according to the Maryland State Police.
“People just assume they don’t have to slow down (if traffic is lighter),” said Cpl. Rob Moroney of the Maryland State Police.
Route 50 is generally a flat, lesser-traveled roadway where traffic moves swiftly. This means fewer accidents, but those that do occur have potential for more serious injury.
“That could be a contributing factor to the nature of the accident,” Moroney said. “The Beltway is a twisting, turning road with (much denser traffic)”, while motorists on Route 50 may not slow down when they hit a work zone.
Spring and summer are SHA’s busiest construction periods, said SHA Administrator Parker F. Williams. That includes Route 50, where State Police plan more enforcement during the heavy summer travel season as part of its “Reach the Beach” program, Moroney said.
Work on Route 50 this year, however, primarily involves the Bay Bridge, which falls under the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The four-year, $60 million construction project to overhaul the bridge has caused fewer accidents than anticipated since it began earlier this year, according to the MDTA, just 18 versus 21 during the same time last year when there was no work.
Montgomery County, infamous for its traffic congestion, particularly on the Capital Beltway, had four fatal work zone crashes in 2000 after zero from 1996-1999, according to the NHTSA.
None occurred on the Beltway, however, where the SHA is approaching the end of a two-year project replacing four decaying bridge decks between Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue that were nearing the end of their 40-year life.
There was a “slight spike” in the number of collisions in the stretch as drivers became used to work zone conditions, particularly on the on-ramp from Route 29 to the Outer Loop where a stop sign was put up, forcing motorists to merge with Beltway traffic from a standstill, Moroney said.
“It’s a very windy stretch,” he said, adding traffic usually slows for the curves. “If something happens, it tends to be a fender bender.”
“Irate” citizens often call Buck, who manages the project, demanding to know when work will end (scheduled for the end of June), but the only alternative is to close the Beltway for up to four months, an impossible scenario with the area’s traffic.
“I can understand why people are frustrated,” Buck said, “but we can’t shut down the Beltway.”
– 30 – CNS-4-24-02