Wednesday, May 09, 2001

Construction zones set records for fatal crashes

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The number of fatal crashes in road construction zones is reaching record levels in Ohio, Kentucky and nationally, the Enquirer found in examining statistics from 1994 to 1999.

        Greater Cincinnati police and transportation agencies do not keep statistics on local fatal crashes and traffic violations in work zones.

        But they agree there's a growing problem locally — caused by more construction zones stretching through more seasons, bigger vehicles with more gadgets that distract drivers, and more drivers in a hurry.

        Though fines for speeding and other infractions in construction zones were doubled several years ago in Ohio, the impact has been negligible, say state police officers Sgt. Ken Ward of the Lebanon post and Lt. Paul Hermes of Batavia.

        “It's supposed to be a deterrent,” Sgt. Ward said. “It wasn't for us last year. Even with specialized enforcement on 71 (widening from 275 to Paramount's Kings Island), with high fines, we didn't have any shortage of violators.”

        The only solution: Slow down.

        “Instead of a doubled fine, what (offenders) ought to do is spend four hours on a construction crew, working next to live traffic,” said Mark Potnick, safety director for the Ohio Contractors Association in Columbus.

19 fatalities in Ohio
        Ohio had 19 fatalities in work zones in 1998 and again in '99, up from just seven the previous year, according to statistics gathered by the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.

        Kentucky in 1999 reached double-figures for the first time with 13, a 44 percent increase over the next deadliest year during that period. Indiana has remained fairly consistent.

        Nationally, 868 people died in work-zones in 765 incidents in 1999. Both were the highest figures over that six-year period.

        Nationwide, no year going back to 1982 was higher than '99, the most recent year calculated. Most of those killed were in vehicles, but 23 percent of road crew workers killed on the job were struck by vehicles.

        Locally, statistics were not available because the computer systems of local police and transportation agencies aren't programmed to break down which road crashes occur in work-zones and which don't. Some police departments agreed to go through tickets individually to pull out work-zone violators, others wouldn't.

        Such information could be useful, ODOT construction engineer Larry Weisman said after hearing the Enquirer's state and national findings on work-zone crashes.

        “If there's a fatality in a work zone, we investigate it, find the cause, and to what degree the work was a factor,” he explained. “But as far as logging the information and tracking it, that's something we just don't do.”

        “Maybe we should consider doing it,” Mr. Weisman added.

Maysville triple fatal
        The deadliest work-zone crash in the past year locally occurred the July 4th weekend in Maysville, Ky. Three people - including a Mount Orab couple - were killed. Five others were injured. The cause: one driver sideswiped a car, then struck another head-on.

        Wreckage was scattered for hundreds of feet.

        There have been six construction-zone crashes since March 28 in the seven-mile stretch of I-275 in Clermont County.

        “Most are following too closely or failing to stop,” Lt. Hermes said. “That's typical even before the construction.”

        Randy Dotson, 24, said common sense should be enough to slow down. A residential electrician for Clermont County-based Genstep Electric, he drives every workday with co-worker Chad Pitzer, 23. Both strongly support speed enforcement.

        “If he wasn't sitting there,” Mr. Dotson said of the Hamilton County sheriff's deputy patrolling nearby Interstate 275, “you know (drivers) would be doing 80.”

        Mason Municipal Court requires that any speeder exceeding 80 mph appear in court, as opposed to simply sending in money. Doubled fines typically run about $200, depending on the infraction and how much the speed limit was exceeded.

        Kim Blanchet, 40, of Southgate, said of higher fines: “It's definitely a factor when I see that. I stop and think about it. For a $100 ticket to be $200, yes I slow down.”

        One Northern Kentuckian said the presence of work crews is a factor, but not doubled fines.

        “If they just have orange barrels I don't pay no attention,” said Joseph Farwick, 84, of Bellevue, Ky. “But if they're out there working, I slow down.”

        ODOT's Mr. Weisman said part of the problem is driver's false sense of security in bigger vehicles with air bags, anti-lock brakes and high-tech suspension systems.

        According to the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in addition to the 23 percent of work-zone workers killed between 1992 and 1996 who were hit by traffic, 18 percent were hit by construction vehicles, and 15 percent were killed by traffic crashes but not directly struck by a vehicle.

        ODOT road crew supervisor Leroy Bellamy of the Blue Ash post has worked on road construction sites for 25 years.

        “When you see it like we do,” he said, “it's like living on the street.”


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