It was one of the first things that made it clear to many in Tennessee that the pandemic was having a profound effect: traffic levels dropped. Fewer cars, pick-ups, SUVs and buses were on the streets and highways – not only in the Manchester area but across the U.S. – reflecting the reality that millions of people had lost their jobs and millions more were working from home.
One of the paradoxes of the pandemic is that though traffic levels have been down, work zone crashes and fatalities have risen, according to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts.
Causes of work zone crashes
Transportation and state highway officials say that workers repairing roads, striping streets, constructing highways or directing traffic around work projects are at greater risk than ever, despite the reduced traffic levels. They blame the increase in motor vehicle crashes in road work zones on two factors: distracted driving and drivers who are trying to speed through the work areas.
The Federal Highway Administration says that travel on U.S. streets and roads was down 40 percent in April and 26 percent in May, compared with 2019. While traffic volume has risen in recent months, the problems with work zone speeding and distracted driving have not let up.
‘Going much too fast’
“Speeding has really come to the forefront during Covid,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director at the Governors Highway Safety Association. “People are going much too fast. In work zones, that’s the worst thing we can have happen.”
It isn’t just the members of work crews who are in danger of being injured or killed in the crashes. Drivers and passengers are at risk, too.
In 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), there were 755 deaths in work zones – only 124 of those killed were workers, according to the data collected by the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.
The organization said there were 123,000 work zone crashes that year, and that about 45,000 people sustained injuries in the accidents.
Reasons for work zone dangers
The causes of work zone dangers are mostly obvious ones: changes in traffic patterns, narrowed right-of-ways, the presence of large, slow-moving construction vehicles and other work-related activities, says the Federal Highway Administration. Plus, crews are sometimes working just feet from moving traffic.
The Pew Charitable Trusts report says many state transportation departments have also tried to take advantage of reduced traffic volume during the pandemic by increasing road maintenance, repairs and construction.
“If you’re patching a pothole or doing a pavement repair, the only thing between you and traffic coming at 80 miles an hour may be a traffic cone,” said a state safety and operations officer. “If you have one driver distracted by their cellphone, it’s fatal.”
Another transportation safety official said, “You’d think with fewer people on the roads things would be safer. But there are more severe crashes. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating.”