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County Champion


Work zones are dangerous; Distractions make things worse

By Lauren Torres, National Safety Council
Lauren Torres is NSC program technical advisor in the Roadway Practice at the National Safety Council.

Work zones are everywhere. Whether it’s a road closed to fix an underground pipe or an entire block closed for scheduled maintenance to a building, we’ve all experienced a detour on or around the road. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 857 people were killed and 44,240 more were injured in work zone crashes in 2020. That’s 857 parents, children and other loved ones who never made it home, and tens of thousands more whose lives were changed forever by injuries.

How crashes happen in work zones

According to FHWA, more work zone-related crashes happen on arterial roads than any other road type. These roads are usually multi-lane and connect local communities to major interstates. Arterials also carry multi-modal types of transit, such as buses, trains, pedestrians, cyclists and freight. The presence of so many different road users can multiply the risks in work zones, where changes to normal traffic patterns can create confusion and frustration.

Unfortunately, speeding is also common on these types of roads and is the most significant contributor to work zone crashes. In 2020, nearly 300 people died in a work zone crash involving speeding, and hundreds more died in rear-end collisions and crashes involving commercial motor vehicles.

Pedestrians and other vulnerable road users are especially at risk in work zones. The Institute of Transportation Engineers reports that if a person is hit by a car traveling at 20 mph, they have a 90% chance of survival. Increase that to just 30 mph and the chance of survival drops to 60%. At 40 mph, a person hit by a car only has a 20% chance of surviving.

Distractions increase the risks in work zones

Distracted driving is a leading cause of motor vehicle crashes even though it is underreported. We all have been guilty of trying to drive and eat a quick snack or use our vehicle’s infotainment screen to see who is calling or texting us, among many other types of distractions. Many of us have even switched to using hands-free tools to take calls or use our navigation systems under the belief that they do not impair our driving abilities. Unfortunately, research has proven that to be incorrect.

According to the National Safety Council, eight people a day are killed in crashes attributed to distracted driving in the U.S. Taking your attention away from the road, even for a moment, can have disastrous consequences for yourself, your loved ones and the other people around you. This is especially true in work zones where sidewalks and lanes may be altered, and where vehicles may merge or hit their brakes unexpectedly.

What we can do to make work zones safer

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has safety tips to help protect everyone in work zones, from drivers and passengers to pedestrians and workers:

  1. Plan ahead by researching your route. This way, you can avoid work zones or understand the available detours.
  2. Pay attention to signage and temporary digital message boards, as they may provide valuable information about lane closures, lane shifts and detours. They can also alert you when workers are present in work zones.
  3. Slow down, as speeding through work zones puts everyone at higher risk. Slowing down also gives you more time to see valuable information on road closures, detours and lane shifts, and gives you more time to react to unexpected hazards.
  4. Move into the open lane as soon as possible when you see signage for lane closures and lane shifts. Don’t wait until the last minute to move over or you’ll create more risks for yourself and other people in the work zone.
  5. Keep your distance in work zones, leaving plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you. According to the FHWA, rear-end crashes made up 37% of all work zone crashes in 2020.

Avoid distractions to keep everyone safe

Work zones are designed to keep everyone safe during road closures, but maintaining that safety requires everyone’s participation, including workers, pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. We all want to get through the work zone quickly and arrive at our destination safely. These small steps can help.

Take the NSC Just Drive pledge to avoid distractions while driving, including in work zones, and get free materials for Distracted Driving Awareness Month at

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