With several road construction-related accidents around the state in the past few months, what precautionary steps are being taken with the more than $70 million in projects awarded in July?
“The department is in the process of working through the 1987 four-lane program,” said Mike Bowling, special projects officer in the public affairs division of Mississippi Department of Transportation. “We are now in the third phase of continuing work and we are taking on new work with the gaming roads program. The Legislature authorized the department to look at many areas affected by gaming and to widen or otherwise improve the roads.”
The Transportation Equity Act, recently passed at the federal level, means more road construction money for Mississippi, Bowling said.
“For years, Mississippi acted almost as a donor state,” he said. “We put in a lot more transportation money through taxes than we got back at a federal level. The act allows states to get a closer amount to what they put in. It will allow us to enhance certain areas we are working on.”
With more road construction in the works, there`s more of a chance of accidents. Recently, a welder for American Field Services was struck and killed when an 18-wheeler crashed through orange barrels on I-20 near Brandon. Traffic had been shut down to one lane and the welder was sitting on the surface of the pavement welding replacement metal to existing rebar.
“I have no idea why the trucker came over,” said Cindy Warner, owner of American Field Services in Jackson. “It was a clear day. There was concrete pavement with no rutting.”
Although the cab of the 18-wheeler caught fire after impact, the truck driver was not killed. A ruling has not yet been made, she said.
“If there`s anything we can do to make it safer for them out there, we want to do it,” Warner said. “The traveling public has got to respect that there are barrels between them and the workers.”
Warner is in the process of accumulating information from neighboring states about laws in construction work zones. Several states, including Florida, Texas and Virginia, double fines for speeding in work zones.
Cal Adams, director of public affairs of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said there have been several accidents, including an incident on U.S. 49 South several years ago, where a worker was hit but not killed.
“We have regulations that give the highway department the authority to change the speed limit where they`re working and it is enforceable,” Adams said. “We don`t double fines.”
Edward Bailey, state traffic engineer for MDOT, submitted a recommendation in the last legislative session to double fines in work zones, he said.
“When the bill got to the governor`s desk for a signature, it had been changed in committee to actually lower the fine,” Bailey said. “The present law says the fine is up to $250. They had changed it to read `up to a maximum of $200` so the governor elected to veto the bill and I agreed with him that it really weakened the law instead of improved it. I will probably submit the same recommendation next year.”
MDOT officials have a commission order to lower the speed limits, and usually reduce it 10 mph. Regulatory signs must be in black and white, Bailey said.
“In addition, our project engineers have the authority to put up advisory speed signs,” he said. “When most people see an orange sign, that`s to alert them they are entering a work construction zone. We recently started this program, patterned after a similar program (the state of) Maryland enforces, and we haven`t had time to get feedback.”
Amy Weeks, president of Traffic Control Products of Jackson, said the primary concern in the traffic control industry is drivers who ignore construction signs.
“People tend to drive by habit and ignore the constructions signs that are in place for their protection,” Weeks said. “We do everything we can to make construction zones safe but until the driving public has a reason to drive more safely, there will always be construction zone-related accidents.”
Most drivers do not understand how speed limits are set, Bailey said.
“Speed limits are set close to the 85 percentile speed, which is the speed 85% of people are driving at or below,” he said. “But a speed limit is supposed to be the maximum speed under good conditions. When it`s raining, sleeting or snowing, you don`t have to drive 70 mph just because the sign says 70 mph.”
MDOT takes daily calls from cities and towns that want officials to look at safety concerns. Lowering speed limits in problem areas is a common request, Bailey said.
“Many times, we get out and look and there`s nothing wrong with the signs or the geometrics of the highway. The bottom line is people are speeding,” he said. “The answer is speed control. There aren`t enough highway patrol officers. They are stretched so thin, they can`t be everywhere at once.”
During the Stack project, the salary for an off-duty highway patrolman was included in MDOT`s contract. The Stack project had three legs – I-20 westbound, I-20 eastbound, and I-55 northbound – and the patrolman`s presence helped, Bailey said.
“If we had it to do over again, I would have suggested three off-duty highway patrolmen,” he said. “I live in Brandon and what I observed is when the public saw he was in the Pearl area, they would open it up on I-55, or if they saw he was in the I-20 westbound lane, they would open it up in the eastbound lane.”
Many states have a patrolman stationed at each work zone, Bailey said.
“People don`t respect our amber flashing lights that state law requires us to use,” he said. “We can`t use blue or red flashing lights, and there`s something about blue lights that slows people down.”
Another option to alert workers when a driver has veered inside the work zone is the use of an intrusion alarm system. “It probably wouldn`t have helped the worker in Brandon because it happened so quickly,” he said.
Other states rely on camera enforcement to assist with speed control. Similar to “red light running,” in major cities, cameras are mounted in problem areas and pictures are snapped, with license tags in view, when drivers exceed the speed limit. It is highly controversial and there are numerous issues to be worked out before it could even be considered in Mississippi, Bailey said.
“Do you send the ticket to the owner of the car or to the driver? Do you take a picture of the back of the car or the front and back?” he said. “Some people feel it`s invading their privacy. For instance, a photo of the front of a car can show a man with a lady, but what if the lady normally doesn`t go with the man? You get into a lot of issues, but it`s a very fair way to assist with speed control.”