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News / Clark County News

Officials in Clark County concerned about troubling trend in work zone crashes

Safety paramount as construction season continues in county

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 17, 2023, 6:09am
2 Photos
To make Highway 14 safer, WSDOT is implementing new safety measures such as a temporary queue warning system will be installed near the work zone, and some of the project ramp meters will be activated earlier than scheduled.
To make Highway 14 safer, WSDOT is implementing new safety measures such as a temporary queue warning system will be installed near the work zone, and some of the project ramp meters will be activated earlier than scheduled. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Swimming at Frenchman’s Bar, walks by the fort and long sips from Alderbrook’s pink lemonade fountains can be synonymous with the smoldering and long summer days in Clark County.

But for engineers and construction crews the dry season can be known for something else: road work.

So far this summer, some of the region’s most well known roads and bridges have been repaired, are currently being worked on or are about to be repaired. The Lewis and Clark Bridge in Longview was closed to most vehicle traffic earlier this summer and state Highway 14 will remain under construction through the next year, for example.

But with the construction, local and state officials have noticed a troubling trend: more close calls and near-accidents between vehicles and people in work zones and more crashes in work zones.

In 2021, 108 workers died in highway work zones across the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Federal Highway Administration. In 2020, 117 workers died.

Additionally, traffic fatalities in work zones rose nearly 11 percent from 2020 to 2021, from 863 to 956 across the United States. About 20 percent of the traffic fatalities in work zones are bicyclists and pedestrians, with 171 fatalities in work zones in 2021 and 173 in ’22.

Although total crashes in Clark County have remained relatively consistent over the past decade — with the exception of 2020 — at around 4,300 a year, traffic fatalities, crashes involving a suspected serious injury and crashes involving a suspected minor injury have increased since the start of the pandemic.

Traffic fatalities hit a 32-year high in Washington last year with 750. In Clark County, there were 37.

What is being done

Those who have taken Northeast St. Johns Road between Northeast 78th Street and Northeast Minnehaha Street may have noticed a new billboard of a toddler with a neon orange construction vest and a hard hat.

It reads: “Help everyone get home safe. Drive carefully in work zones.”

The billboard is a part of Clark County Public Works’ outreach campaign to promote safe driving in work zones, said Kaley McLachlan-Burton, community engagement and inclusion manager with public works.

The close calls and near accidents were troubling, and when a reckless driver struck two workers in a work zone, dragging a Public Works employee and causing them injuries that required a hospital visit, it reached a boiling point. They have since returned to work

Since the start of the pandemic, Public Works has started using automatic flagger assistance devices, which keep flaggers farther from traffic, increased the use of digital sign boards to communicate current and future road work and is using a buffer truck behind an employee working in the road to put a physical barrier between staff and moving vehicles, according to Josh Lipscomb, roads operations and maintenance division manager with Public Works.

“I’m not demoralized by our effort here, because we’re responding to that change in behavior, and we haven’t really had an opportunity to see that play out yet,” said Jeremy Provenzola, deputy county engineer.

WSDOT

In 2022, the Washington State Department of Transportation implemented a safety reset in their work zones.

“Previously, WSDOT balanced safety for workers and travelers with the need to keep traffic moving through work zones,” Spokesperson Sarah Hannon-Nein said in a statement. “Now, we lean more toward safety of our workers.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation Southwest Region uses a temporary smart work zone system that alerts travelers with real-time traffic information on signs at about 1-mile intervals leading up to the work zone.

This system is dynamic. As congestion builds, different messages will be displayed to inform drivers of slowing traffic ahead, said Sarah Hannon-Nein, a spokesperson with WSDOT.

Some projects, such as the North Fork Lewis River Bridge deck repair project scheduled to start in late August, employ a temporary barrier to protect workers. In the case of the Lewis River Bridge, it will result in three lanes being reduced to two narrow lanes and narrow shoulders.

Highway 14

On perhaps the region’s most visible roadwork project, it is not uncommon for drivers going the speed limit on state Highway 14 between Southeast 164th Avenue and Interstate 205 to have to hit the brakes, decelerating to a near stop.

Since construction to add a third lane to both sides of the highway between Southeast 164th Avenue and Interstate 205 started last year, there has been an increase in crashes in the work zone due to congestion, disabled vehicles, numerous lane changes and speeding, according to Hannon-Nein.

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While construction continues through next summer, so will the narrow, shoulderless lanes.

To make the road safer, WSDOT is implementing new safety measures such as a temporary queue warning system that will be installed near the work zone; some of the project ramp meters will be activated earlier than scheduled.

Ramp meters have been shown to reduce collisions by 30 percent. Although all the meters won’t be in place until 2024, the meters will be used for two lanes of traffic to help improve safety and traffic operations during construction.

The queue warning system uses real-time information to alert drivers about slowdowns ahead. The system will be installed just east of the work zone in lieu of the advanced message boards currently in place.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer