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Getting Around: Work zone speed enforcement to kick into high gear

Sunday, June 08, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two weeks from tomorrow, a highway work zone will become analogous to a school zone, meaning slow down or pay big time, possibly losing your driver's license.

A second tier of rules will be implemented in Pennsylvania on that date, adding to safety measures that went into effect Feb. 21. Those earlier rules require drivers, among other things, to turn on headlights where contractors post warning signs advising them to do so.

Here's what will be new in highway work zones starting June 23.:

In addition to double fines and other penalties, PennDOT will automatically suspend licenses for 15 days when drivers exceed the posted speed limit by 11 mph or more, cause an accident or receive a citation for driving at any unsafe speed.

A 6 mph "cushion" that police must allow before issuing a speeding ticket when radar or electronic speed sensors are used on open roads will not apply in posted work zones, the same as zero tolerance for exceeding 15 mph in school zones. That is, if the posted speed limit in an "active" work zone is 25 mph, you can be pinched for going 26 mph.

Signs marking the beginning of a work zone will display a blinking white strobe light. It will be turned on when a work zone is "active" and turned off when work is stopped for 60 or more minutes.

Twenty-seven people, including three highway workers, were killed in Pennsylvania construction zones last year, a 35 percent increase over 2001, when 20 people lost their lives. In 2000, 3,498 vehicles were involved in 1,988 work zone crashes; 1,757 people were injured.

"The idea is to make a highway work zone as safe as a school zone," said Mike Welsh, representative of the Western Pennsylvania Council of Carpenters. "The new law puts more teeth in the safety program."

The union, representing 60 counties, pushed for the legislation after an Oct. 10, 2001, accident at a Route 60 construction site in Beaver County. An out-of-control produce truck struck and killed five highway workers.

Just last month, workers, again on Route 60, got another look at how vulnerable they can be in work zones. A tractor-trailer plowed through temporary concrete barriers protecting a construction area around 4 a.m. on May 29 near Pittsburgh International Airport.

"I've got the shivers," said Joe Severino, a Council of Carpenters business agent who phoned me from the site. "If it happened three hours later, laborers, equipment operators and cement finishers would be have been working there."

The new law also calls for electronic signs flashing the speed of vehicles entering work zones. To the chagrin of the Council of Carpenters, the speed-monitoring devices are to be used only on projects costing $300,000 or more on interstates and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"The speed signs are one of the most effective safety tools you can have in a work zone," Welsh said, noting their presence might have made a difference on Route 60. It's four-lane, limited-access road similar to any interstate, so why the exception?

Clarifying the law. Questions continue to come up as motorists acquaint themselves with the work zone laws.

Q. My vehicle is equipped with daytime running lights. Do they satisfy provisions of the law requiring use of headlights in work zones?

A. No. You must turn on your headlights on low beam. No other lights fulfill the requirement, including parking lights, fog lights and running lights.

Q. What is the fine for violating the headlights law?

A. It's $25, a summary offense. That is, it's not a moving violation that will result in points against your license. It's also a secondary offense, meaning police will have to stop you for another violation before citing you, the same as the seat belt law.

Q. If the work zone is not "active," that is, if I don't see any construction activity or workers, do I still have to comply with the reduced speed limit?

A. Yes. Reduced speed limits are posted to protect everyone. But when the work zone is not active, there's the normal 6 mph leeway before police using electronic devices can cite you for speeding.

Q. Does the law apply only to PennDOT construction?

A. No. Regulations also address road users when traffic-control devices are erected for local highway work, utility work, maintenance operations and crash management.

Local connection. PennDOT maintenance crews are required to set up the same work zone safety signs as private contractors.

Those signs are being produced by Pittsburgh-based PBA Industries, the manufacturing component of Pittsburgh Vision Services, the former Pittsburgh Blind Association that started making brooms in 1910. PennDOT is its biggest customer.

Since February, eight visually impaired workers and one fully sighted person have made about 1,500 signs reading "Work Zone -- Turn on Headlights," "End Active Work Zone" and "Workers Present When Flashing," to be used with a strobe light.

PennDOT's signs are silk-screened onto reflective vinyl, so they can be attached to fiberglass frames that can be folded and removed at the end of a work day.

"So far this year, we've made about 8,500 signs that PennDOT uses all over the state," PBA Industries Director John Sosnak said. "When you see 'Litter Crew' or 'Work Area Ahead,' that's our signs."

Shedding more light. A reader who goes by "HGM" e-mailed the suggestion that if state lawmakers want to improve safety, they should pass another law involving headlights.

"Our neighbor to the east, New Jersey, has a law requiring drivers to turn on their headlights when they have to turn on their windshield wipers," he said. "Any chance Pennsylvania might do this in the future?"

Dear HGM:

I hope so. It's a good law that's in place in other states besides New Jersey. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania drivers would be wise to turn on their headlights voluntarily, even when wipers are on intermittently for light rain or when there is fog.

Plate du jour. Kate Hallock of Bradford Woods spotted the Pennsylvania personalized license plate ICU2. I would too, if you UZ LITES.

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

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