WASHINGTON Highway construction zones too often are
death zones for motorists and workers, federal safety investigators
said Tuesday in urging the government to come up with ways
to make the areas safer.
The National Transportation Safety Board made the recommendation
in a report that cited poor work zone design as the probable
cause of a 2001 Nebraska bus accident that killed three high
school students and a chaperone.
While drivers cause many accidents by excessive speed or inattention,
the safety board said state highway departments bear some
responsibility. Too often, work zones have lanes that are
too narrow, inadequate barriers separating oncoming traffic
and design flaws, the NTSB said.
"It is the responsibility of government to secure the
highways for safety for experienced and inexperienced drivers,"
Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said. "We don't have
an inexperienced driver lane."
On major highways, state governments usually are responsible
for planning the design of construction zones and ensuring
the work is performed correctly, whether by public employees
or private contractors.
The board unanimously asked the Federal Highway Administration
to issue stronger rules for designing work zones, such as
concrete barriers or orange barrels to separate two-way traffic,
and to require regular monitoring of the zones so their designs
can be modified quickly if accidents occur. The board also
told the administration to require that contractors maintain
safety features such as bridge railings during work projects.
Engleman Conners said she planned to take the board's findings
to a meeting of state transportation officials today.
Construction zones have become more common as many cities
and towns seek to accommodate growing populations and improve
outdated roadways. As they proliferate, so do accidents.
The number of motorists and workers killed in construction
zones rose from 693 in 1997 to a record 1,181 in 2002, according
to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Jennifer Gavin, a spokeswoman for the American Association
of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said drivers
bear most responsibility for work zone accidents.
"The vast majority are caused by speeding and inattention,"
she said of fatal work zone accidents.
The Nebraska accident occurred on Oct. 13, 2001, along a
stretch of U.S. Route 6 in Omaha.
Normally a six-lane divided highway, the road had been narrowed
to two lanes separated only by a double-yellow line as it
neared a work zone at the West Papillion Creek Bridge.
The bus carried 27 high school band members and three adults.
The driver swerved to an oncoming bus, went off the road and
broke through a guardrail that had been damaged months earlier
but not repaired completely. It came to rest on its side in
the creek below the bridge.
NTSB investigators told the board the lanes at the construction
zone were so narrow they offered no margin of error for two
"The work zone required near-perfect performance by
drivers of commercial vehicles," NTSB investigator Jennifer
The Nebraska Department of Roads issued a statement disagreeing
with the safety board's findings, saying that the work zone
"met or exceeded safety guidelines required for safe
travel through a construction project," and more than
33,000 motorists a day went through the area without incident
in the 18 months before the accident. The department said
it "fulfilled its duty to the traveling public."
The NTSB said a contributing cause of the accident was the
driver's unfamiliarity with the bus. The driver, Joshua Smith
of Seward, Neb., usually drove a conventional school bus rather
than the transit-style bus carrying the students and chaperones.