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Fatalities, mostly motorists, at an all-time high Road work zones hazardous

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

By Jonathan D. Salant, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The number of people killed in highway work zones is at an all-time high, as orange cones proliferate on crowded roads and harried motorists ignore signs warning them to slow down.

A record 872 people were killed in work zones in 1999, surpassing the 828 deaths recorded in 1994, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Pennsylvania mirrored the national trend. In 1999, 27 people died in construction zones, compared to 19 in 1998, 16 in 1997, and 15 in 1996. In 2000 the number was 23, and there have been only two deaths so far this year.

Most of those killed in work zone crashes were occupants of vehicles that collided with other cars or ran into construction equipment. Between 1995 and 1999, motorists accounted for 84 percent of work zone fatalities.

One reason for the rising death toll, said Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, is the rising number of roadway construction projects.

"Obviously if we are doing more construction, the chance for more accidents increases," he said. "Our workers are out there to make the roads safe. In spite of the warning signs, there are motorists who want to get home at the end of the day and they aren't always paying attention. We'll do our part, but we call upon the drivers to do their part."

A House subcommittee held hearings yesterday, looking at ways to reduce numbers of accidents and fatalities in work zones.

Even though motorists die most often, the people who most fear work-zone accidents are construction workers.

"Imagine if your work station was literally four feet from cars and trucks moving at 55 miles per hour or more," said William Toohey, senior vice president for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a construction industry group.

"That's the environment facing highway workers."

The number of deaths in work-zone crashes grew 25 percent between 1997 and 1999, as the amount of money spent on highway construction rose.

Federal spending on roads grew from $49 million to $58 million over the same two-year period, an increase of 18 percent, and rose to a projected $65 million in the current fiscal year, according to The Road Information Program, a research group financed by the construction industry.

Almost every state reports at least 100 work zones at a given time, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

From reduced speed limits to warning signs reading, "Slow down. My mommy works here," state transportation agencies have been trying to curb the growth in fatal accidents.

They are doubling fines for speeding; requiring that more work be done at night when traffic is lighter; installing more message signs to warn motorists about the work; trying to keep all lanes open through a work zone to keep traffic moving; and even closing a road entirely in order to speed construction.

Meanwhile, motorists keep speeding by.

Post-Gazette staff writer Nate Guidry contributed to this story.

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