Millions of Americans driving away for the Thanksgiving holiday face an added danger on their vacation journeys — highway construction zones, where the number of deaths from accidents has soared by 70 percent in the last five years.
DATA COMPILED by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that the surge in construction zone-related fatalities caused 1,181 deaths in 2002, a jump of 102 over the previous year.
Heavier traffic, budget cuts and roads long in need of repair all contribute to the deadly turn, say safety campaigners, who are lobbying state and federal officials to focus more attention on the nation’s highway work zones.
Sandra Henderson, of Lancaster, Ky., has lobbied her state for years since her husband was killed while working on a construction project.
Don Henderson died instantly when an 18-wheeler careened into him in 1994. A co-worker also was killed.
“He was aware of the of the cars and the trucks that came too close to him, but, like everybody, you just don’t think that it will happen to you,” Henderson says.
But it’s not just the construction workers who are at risk; 80 percent of fatalities in roadway construction zones are drivers and their passengers, according to federal data.
The jump in deaths has prompted North Carolina, which has some of the deadliest construction zones in the country, to take matters into its own hands. So-called SMARTZONES — which offer high-tech solutions to the traffic congestion that most often leads to accidents in construction areas — are now common across the state.
Roadside sensors are used to detect traffic slowing down.
Using wireless technology, they relay information to an on-site computer, which in turn analyzes the data and posts a warning on a message board well in advance of the construction snarl.
Studies have shown that frustrated motorists appreciate the real-time traffic information — often accurate to the minute — as they drive through work zones.
“A better-informed motorist can make better decisions as to how to react to ongoing construction work zones,” says Steve Kite, of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Kite says the state has recorded no rear-end crashes and no fatalities in the SMARTZONE areas.
With 47 deaths in 2002, North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for fatalities in construction zones, behind Texas (192), California (119), Georgia (118), Florida (87) and New York (60), according to the NHTSA.
The five states that fared best in 2002 — Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah and Connecticut — reported only one work zone death each.
A confluence of problems is behind the dangers of highway construction zones.
Slashed budgets, for one, have forced some states to cut patrol forces, which were already being stretched thin by new homeland security duties.
In addition, state law enforcement bodies, traditional workplaces for reservists and National Guard members, have been depleted by call-ups to the war in Iraq.
A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that almost half of America’s law enforcement agencies have lost personnel to military call-ups.
In Kentucky, activist Henderson says she has had limited success in raising awareness of the problem among state officials.
Her letters and calls to state officials only recently resulted in a bright orange roadside memorial used in construction zones in her husband Don’s hometown of Paint Lick. Under a construction sign that reads, “My daddy works here” is Don Henderson’s name.
Henderson says personalizing the death of her husband — and of others killed in roadway construction zones — will have an impact.
“Those are flesh and blood people out there. Treat them as such ... because what you’re driving is like a loaded gun. You can kill instantly.”
Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News correspondent.