In the zone: Fatalities, injuries in work zones still a problem

Traffic flows through construction zones along I-94 in Stevensville Saturday morning. Many drivers speed through the zones, which MDOT and police officials say has been a continuous problem for years. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Traffic flows through construction zones along I-94 in Stevensville Saturday morning. Many drivers speed through the zones, which MDOT and police officials say has been a continuous problem for years. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — It is customary during Michigan’s construction season to pass through active road repair zones where drivers are warned to slow down.

Legislation has been passed and tickets have been written, but many drivers refuse to drive the speed limit through work zones. While the number of fatalities and injuries in work zones along Michigan roadways have remained level over the last few years, officials say speeding is still a big problem.

Lincoln Township Police Chief Dan Sullivan can attest to this.

During a routine trip this spring down I-94 on his way to Benton Township, Sullivan entered the I-94 construction zone in his township in a marked police vehicle. The road thinned to two lanes and the speed limit dropped to 45 mph.

A driver in a pickup truck advanced on Sullivan’s black-and-white until he was nearly on Sullivan’s bumper. The two continued to drive like this until they approached a lane shift. The driver pulled around Sullivan and cut him off before accelerating ahead.

Perplexed, and in awe of what took place, Sullivan said he kicked on his radar and clocked the fellow traveler driving 70 mph through the work zone. Sullivan pulled over the driver and discovered he was running late for a tee time.

“The first thing he said to me was ‘you’re holding up traffic,’” Sullivan said. “I understand it’s difficult to go the speed limit in a construction zone. But that’s a lack of respect for the safety of others involved. He was not concerned with anything other than his own center of the universe.”

Fines that hurt

Traffic fines assessed for speed violations are doubled when a driver commits them in a construction zone. The policy of assessing double fines in construction zones has been in effect since 1996, when the Michigan legislature enacted Public Act 320.

When the legislature raised the maximum speeds that same year, its members cited the need to penalize drivers who ignored the safety of road workers and school children in the slower speed zones that were posted near construction sites and schools.

At the time, the Michigan State Police reported that the number of traffic accidents in construction zones statewide had been steadily rising – citing speed as a factor in most cases. In addition to the doubled fines, the Michigan Road Builders Association began a public education campaign called “Give ’Em A Brake.” The campaign was meant to remind drivers of the enhanced law enforcement in construction zones.

The increased fines were effective in slowing drivers with a lead foot, and the number of deaths and injuries decreased. However, police and road workers suggested another deterrent by adding points to the driver’s record.

When points are assessed for violations, a driver’s insurance rates go up to cover costs from the driver’s higher accident risk. This discussion led to legislation being passed in 2002 that increased penalty points on a driver’s record.

In some ways, the new legislation worked.

According to data from the Michigan Department of Transportation Scorecard, Michigan recorded 140 injuries and 19 deaths in work zones in 2002. Other than of a few outlier years from when the legislation passed in 2002, the number has either gradually decreased our remained the same. In 2014, the state had 71 injuries and 21 fatal work zone accidents.

Doing the math

Despite these numbers, MDOT officials say work zone speeding is still a big problem.

John Richard, an MDOT communications representative in the Grand Region, said any speeding in work zones is dangerous because the lanes are narrower with fixed-concrete barrier walls.

Richard said driving is the most dangerous thing people do throughout their lives, which they willingly do everyday. People doing a dangerous activity in a work zone makes matters worse.

“It’s a disturbing trend even though the numbers are consistent. The only common factor is human behavior,” Richard said. “People want to blame cellphones, but that’s only part of it. Drivers have been speeding through work zones before cellphones were a thing.

Graphic by Kayla Folino.

Graphic by Kayla Folino.

“You have so many agendas, so many different schedules. A 19-year-old that wants to go 90 miles an hour will have to navigate a 90-year-old going 20 miles per hour slower than the speed limit. Insane things happen behind the wheel.”

Michigan is one of the tougher states to travel, regardless the time of year. Weather hampers roads with the rotating freeze/thaw cycles and salt tears apart pavement. Throw in a construction season that never seems to end, and drivers get impatient.

That’s why with all the increased penalties at stake, Richard said, people still speed through zones.

“What blows me away is how people tailgate, which makes no sense in a work zone. When you tailgate, there is less time to react and you have lower visibility,” he said. “If you’re driving down the freeway at 70, and you look down at your phone for three or four seconds, you’ve just traveled the length of a football field without realizing it.”

Edward Martin, a transportation maintenance coordinator for MDOT’s Southwest Region, said there is no room for error in work zones.

With the speed drivers are going, it only takes one second to make a mistake. To put things in perspective, Martin goes by a simple formula.

With 5,280 feet in a mile, traveling at 60 mph, Martin multiplies those figures to get 316,800 feet. Next, divide that by 60 minutes (one hour) and once again by 60 seconds (one minute) and you get 88 feet.

Through this equation, Martin shows that a driver covers 88 feet per second while driving 60 mph.

“It feels like you’re going slow, but if you’re distracted for one of those seconds, that’s where the problem comes in,” Martin said. “The average driver has never worked in these zones and doesn’t understand what it’s like standing next to a truck that is going 60 mph.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 15, 2016)

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