VDOT asks motorists to be alert in work zones

Bill Stover, superintendent of the Stephens City VDOT District Office, stands along a line of barrels simulating a work zone outside their yard on Wednesday. VDOT has designated this week Work Zone Awareness Week and is educating motorists to the critical part they play in keeping everyone safe in highway work zones. Rich Cooley/Daily

STEPHENS CITY — The Virginia Department of Transportation is marking National Work Zone Awareness Week this week by asking motorists to “expect the unexpected” when they happen upon a work zone.

Since 1997, VDOT has honored National Work Zone Awareness Week by holding news conferences and events, including a vigil at its VDOT Workers’ Memorial on Afton Mountain in Albemarle County on Wednesday evening.

Last year, there were 4,068 work zone crashes, resulting in 1,857 injuries and 15 fatalities in the commonwealth. At a news conference held at the Stephens City VDOT district office Wednesday morning, Cliff Balderson, administrator for the VDOT Edinburg Residency, which covers Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties, said motorists need to pay attention when traveling through work zones.

“Work zones are not just set up for the safety of our workers, but for the safety of the motoring public as well,” he said. “When you come up on a work zone, you need to focus on the orange and be on the defensive, because there is heavy equipment and other motorists might not be paying attention.”

Ken Slack, a VDOT spokesperson, said four out of five fatalities in a work zone are motorists and passengers, not road workers.

Cliff Balderson, administrator for the VDOT Edinburg Residency, speaks during a news conference Wednesday in Stephens City regarding Work Zone Safety Awareness Week. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Whenever we do road work, whether it be paving or bridge repair, we set up work zones to ensure everybody’s safety,” Slack said. “We’re trying to make our roads safer, but while we’re doing that, we need to keep both the motoring public and our crews safe as well.”

Bill Stover, superintendent of the Stephens City District Office, said he and his crews review how to make work zones safer before going out to work on the roads and review “near misses” after returning to the office.

“Reviewing the near misses helps keep our crews aware of the dangers and challenges in our work zones,” he said. “One wrong step, one wrong direction could be your last.”

Stover said motorists need to focus on their driving when they’re going through a work zone. He said drivers should not be distracted by the roadwork or by their cell phones. Stover recalled an instance on Route 50 when a motorist plowed into a “crash truck,” a pickup truck with a sign that directed traffic.

“Our crash trucks are designed to be rear ended because they’re there to prevent people from running into our heavy equipment,” he said. “He was looking down, fiddling with his phone when he crashed into it. Luckily nobody was hurt, but it was a lot of paperwork.”

VDOT determines how to set up work zones according to a manual that provides the minimum standards for signage for a particular activity and road condition. Balderson said “sign pollution” can be an issue with work zones.

“If we have too many signs out there, people will get overwhelmed and might not be able to take all that information in,” he said. “The manual helps give us an idea of what to do and is a standard we adhere to, but it doesn’t cover every situation.”

Slack added, “Common sense also plays a major role in it, too. You might be able to do something by the book, but if it’s on a hill or a curve, you might need more manpower for the work zone.”

Sometimes VDOT crews just have to work around traffic patterns, take a step back and put themselves in the motorists’ shoes, Stover said.

“Working on Route 7 is worse than the interstate in a lot of respects, so we try to get out there between the morning and afternoon commutes,” Stover said. “Sometimes, you just have to give the road back to the public … we’ve had people blow horns and give all sorts of hand signals.”

Stover added, “I tell my guys all the time they don’t know what’s going on the driver’s minds, what’s going on in their lives. So we try our best to stay focused and keep an eye on certain drivers who pass through, to watch out for while we’re working.”

Balderson said lowering the speed limit for a work zone is usually a last resort and requires approval from a traffic engineer. He said VDOT works closely with the Virginia State Police to ensure safety at work zones.

“Sometimes we’ll ask them to send out extra patrols for us, but if it’s really bad, we’ll ask them to give us a blue light at the work zone,” he said. “People don’t pay much attention to the orange, but they perk up when they see blue.”

The Stephens City District Office has gone 44 months without an equipment accident and 55 months without a personnel accident. Stover said he and his crews don’t like discussing the streak too much.

“Maybe we’re a little superstitious, but we just don’t like to talk about it much,” he said. “We’ll be in meetings and someone will be like, ‘We shouldn’t be talking about this,’ just in case there is an accident.”

Balderson added, “We don’t like to say it, we just like to do it.”

The following are recommendations by VDOT for motorists who happen upon a work zone:

  • Minimize distractions
  • Pay close attention
  • Turn on headlights
  • Don’t tailgate
  • Don’t speed
  • Keep up with traffic flow
  • Don’t change lanes in the work zone
  • Expect the unexpected

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com