When you drive somewhere you’ve never been, you can’t help but notice that huge gnarled tree, or that grossly dilapidated building, or that road sign missing those vital strips of reflective tape. However, after you’ve driven that route a bunch of times, those once atypical items don’t even register in your consciousness anymore. The same thing happens with construction zones. There’s a certain amount of complacency when it comes to roadwork.
What was once an inconvenience becomes a familiar environment. Orange vests, traffic cones, one-lane stretches, concrete dividers, detours. They all become as routine as your morning coffee. And once you start seeing construction zones as fixed pieces of your periphery, you start putting yourself, other drivers, and construction workers at risk.
Just ask those who have been navigating major road work for years in and around Dallas on I-35. There have been dozens of interstate accidents in Dallas since work began in 2013, making this section of the interstate arguably the most dangerous highway in Texas. A major north-south route, Interstate 35 runs from Duluth, Minnesota, to Laredo, Texas, with almost one-third of the entire length located in the Lone Star State. Around Hillsboro, the highway splits up into I-35W and I-35E, which loop around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and meet up again in Denton. As I-35E runs through Dallas, it is known as the R.L. Thornton Freeway south of I-30 and as the Stemmons Freeway north of I-30.
Whatever it’s called, this section of Interstate 35 handles a lot of traffic. Featuring a vibrant economy drawing people in and a way of life that makes them want to stay, the Dallas region is a popular one, and that growth rate puts a high demand on its infrastructure. Heavily congested roads are common, with North Texas often dominating the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) annual list of the state’s most congested roadways.
As a result, the TxDOT has secured approval and funding for several projects along I-35 aimed at improving mobility. For example, one such project involves rebuilding the section of IH 35 East from IH 635 to US 380. Consisting of two phases along three segments, construction began in October 2013 and is expected to stretch through mid-2017. Another undertaking in the area is known as the Horseshoe Project, which seeks to expand, repave, and add several new bridges and roadways along I-35E and I-30. The two roadways make up part of the “Mix Master” interchange in Downtown Dallas and see more than 460,000 vehicles each week. Construction began during the spring of 2013 and is slated to end in 2017, with the two interstates being widened to a total of 23 lanes (up from 16) that will be built where the interstates combine under the Jefferson Boulevard Viaduct.
While construction is a necessary part of progress and less congestion means a decrease in amount of time lost, fuel costs, and the price of goods, for those dealing with it every day, things are still in the “getting worse before they get better” stage — and in the “extra dangerous, use caution” stage. A recent billboard on I-35 in San Antonio has a simple message “One day you’re going to love I-35. Until then, be careful.” With 24 active work zones along the I-35 corridor, that’s wise advice, yet last year in San Antonio alone, there were 2,132 total crashes in roadway construction and maintenance zones that resulted in ten fatalities. That’s a familiar story in Dallas where there has been an increase in crashes in the multiple construction zones that seem like permanent fixtures.
These work zones don’t leave much room for error. The concrete barriers that are often used to separate the work from the traffic present a significant hazard because they leave vehicles with no place to go. If a distracted or intoxicated or speeding driver comes up too quickly on slowed or stopped traffic, those cars can’t get out of the way – they can only get shoved into the barriers. Additionally, many barriers only have mere inches of wiggle room, so drivers of large trucks have to be extra careful when navigating their way through the gauntlet.
Another concern with construction zones is the human element. There are people working, walking around, moving cones, directing traffic, operating heavy pieces of equipment, having conversations. Drivers who make the same commute every day, twice a day are prone to traveling less defensively, lost in their own thoughts and not paying enough attention to the moving parts of the jobsite. It can be easy to get confused when you are distracted and end up on the wrong side of the barriers – or perhaps, you were paying attention, but the signs or barrels were confusing or blocked from view. Improper barricade placement, incorrect detours, poorly placed construction equipment, and missing signs, are just some of the conditions that can make construction zones dangerous.
There are a few things drivers can do to protect themselves. Ways to stay safe during construction include:
- Leave early. You know there will be delays, so leave the house early. It’ll take the stress off what time it is, so you can focus more on getting to work safely, rather than quickly.
- Drive slowly. When it’s bumper-to-bumper, barrier-to-barrier, you don’t have much time to react. And if there’s one thing that happens often in construction zones, it’s the need to suddenly stop. There may be someone waving traffic through miles of major highway one lane at a time. Chances are, if you can’t stop without hitting the car in front of you, the person behind you also can’t stop in time, nor can the one behind them, and so on. You’ll have a pile-up in no time. Even if the traffic isn’t too thick, follow the posted speed limit. It’s there for a reason.
- Carpool. One good way to avoid the stress of the commute is to not be the one actually driving.
- Pay attention. Construction zones are active jobsites that constantly change. Just because a sign was there last week doesn’t mean it’s the same one there this week. Challenge yourself to process what the signs say, rather than just assuming you already know. Put your phone down and concentrate on what’s going on around you. That will make it easier to watch out for workers and equipment, to obey road crew flaggers, and to merge into designated lanes BEFORE the other lanes close.
In closing, it’s easy to become immune to the road construction work zones many of us drive through on a daily basis. Nonetheless, these present real dangers for drivers as well as for road crew employees alike. Taking time to focus our efforts on careful navigation through these road work zones can be the difference between a serious accident or just another day of transportation to work.
Greg Marks is a Dallas personal injury attorney. Greg helps all victims of personal injury but specializes in car accident injury claims. He is an active member of various local and state legal organizations in Texas as well as the National Association of Personal Injury. Greg is also a member of the LawGuru Attorney Network.