Work zone crashes, deaths on the rise
Carl Antonelli knows just how dangerous road work can be.
Four years ago, the PennDOT employee was struck by a car while working as a construction flagger during a roadway chipping project in Findlay, Allegheny County.
The driver that struck Antonelli peeled out from an intersection in an attempt to beat an oncoming car, Antonelli said.
The incident sent him flying and broke his back in four places.
The West Deer resident spent about two months in recovery before coming back to work. He still does construction flagging, but he said he is much more aware of his surroundings.
“I really do keep track of where I'm at a little bit better, make sure I have an escape route,” Antonelli said. “Everything they've trained us (on) you try to remember, and you try to follow through.”
The number of work zone crashes nationally and statewide has been increasing in recent years, statistics show.
In 2015, there were roughly 97,000 reported work zone crashes, an increase of roughly 8 percent since 2014, Federal Highway Administration data show.
Last year, 2,076 work zone crashes were reported in Pennsylvania, an increase of about 7 percent since 2015, according to PennDOT.
Transportation officials attribute the increase in such crashes to driver behavior, saying people aren't paying attention as they travel through work zones.
“It can be dangerous at times, depending on situations and the public,” said Nate Darwin, a lane construction flagger and equipment operator for PennDOT. “Until you're actually in this position, where you're on the side of a road and someone's beside you going 55 mph when it's only supposed to be 25 mph, you're kind of like, ‘Whoa — that's a little bit too much.' ”
‘Crash truck' saves crew
He highlighted an incident that happened on Route 28 this year.
Darwin said he and his crew were patching the expressway between the RIDC Park and Fox Chapel exits when a motorist sped past them and hit their impact attenuator, a mobile crash truck used to protect workers. If the truck hadn't been there, Darwin said, the whole team could have been hurt.
“Thank God it worked,” he said.
Speeding is one of the leading causes for work zone crashes, said Yasmeen Manyisha, a PennDOT spokeswoman.
She said incidents attributed to distracted driving also have increased tremendously.
“With everyone being on social media, everyone wanting to text and drive, and then, of course, speeding being one of the number one issues that we see with crashes in the state anyway, it's just showing us that people really need to change their behavior,” she said.
PennDOT data show that of the 2,076 work zone crashes reported last year, 275 were because of distracted driving; 13 were caused by people on cellphones; and 644 were related to speeding.
Distracted driving was a factor in 16 percent of fatal work zone crashes nationwide in 2014, and speeding was a factor in 29 percent, the Federal Highway Administration said.
“Speeding is always an issue, distracted driving is an issue, and then people just not practicing patience,” Manyisha said.
“You'll have motorists tailgating if they feel someone's going too slow, or they'll just be flying through the work zone if they just don't agree with the posted speed limit.”
Deaths, injuries mounting
More than 900 people were injured in work-zone-related incidents in Pennsylvania last year and 15 people were killed, state data show.
Seven hundred people died in highway work zone fatalities nationwide in 2015, the most recent year for which Federal Highway Administration data is available. That's an increase of 31 fatalities compared to the previous year, and the highest number since 2008.
Surprisingly, the majority of people killed in such incidents are drivers and passengers, not road workers, officials said. According to federal data, drivers and passengers accounted for 82 percent of national work zone fatalities in 2014.
The high number of driver and vehicle passenger deaths can be attributed to the fact that there are more drivers and passengers driving through highway work sites than workers working in them, said Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.
In addition, workers have training and are protected by various safety devices such as crash barrels or large trucks.
“There is a variety of reasons, but the simplest reason is that drivers involved in crashes are either going too fast or are not paying attention,” Hecox said.
That doesn't mean worker deaths don't occur. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 116 workers were killed in 2014 and 130 died in 2015. In Pennsylvania, since 1970, 87 workers have died as a result of such crashes.
Poor driving etiquette
“It's scary,” Antonelli said. “Nobody wants to come out and get killed. We just want to get the problems fixed.
“Everybody calls and they scream: ‘You haven't fixed our road.' We really do try. But then, when they come through our work zone, they get mad at us because (we made them) wait three minutes. They're on their cellphones. They're Facebooking while they're driving.
“We want the public to be safe when they're in our work zones because, heaven forbid, we hurt somebody. We beat ourselves up as it is to make sure everything's safe.”
Darwin said the statistics are scary, but not surprising.
“Before I became a flagger, I probably looked at it the same way most other people look at it,” he said. “You don't respect it until you're actually doing it.”
As the safety press officer for PennDOT, Manyisha said she tries to inform drivers as much as possible about proper etiquette in work zones. She holds press conferences in larger work zones, speaks at driver's education classes, and also has partnerships with local and state police departments.
She is worried about being in work zones when she hosts news conferences because she can see people on their phones, not paying attention to the road.
“I feel like it's a challenging situation and these men and women are out there doing this every single day,” Manyisha said. “It makes me a little nervous to be out there for an hour knowing people aren't paying attention or caring about my safety.
“Imagine what these people go through every day.”