Apparently too many careless, impatient or drunk drivers are refusing to slow down in construction zones and are hurting or killing people.
A bill that's in the state Senate proposes stiffer penalties for offenders. Higher fines would pay for more police officers to keep the peace in work zones.
“Accidents have definitely been increasing,” said Earl Capps, a safety consultant who worked for the contractor that widened Interstate 26 in North Charleston and has been backing Senate Bill 139. “I don't really know why.”
Maybe road rage is spreading, or people are just becoming more impatient. But the consequences can be tragic.
During his 12 years working for the U.S. Group on I-26, eight motorists and three pedestrians were killed in construction zones, Capps said. That doesn't count the scores of people who were injured. His own car was wiped out when a driver he said must have been going 90 mph crashed into it while he was parked in an emergency lane in a construction zone.
“It's only by timing that I'm here to write this,” Capps said in an email.
The carnage has continued since the I-26 project was completed.
About 3 a.m. Oct. 3 in Dorchester County, a woman crashed into the back of a Buick in a construction zone at U.S. Highway 78 and Orangeburg Road, pushing the car into a stopped dump truck and killing the driver of the Buick, according to the Highway Patrol. The driver accused of causing the wreck was charged with felony driving under the influence.
On Sept. 20 in West Ashley, a car hit and injured two workers installing traffic signals at Bees Ferry Road and Glenn McConnell Parkway. A Department of Transportation spokesman said the car crashed through the orange barrels separating workers from traffic. The driver was charged with DUI.
Fortunately, the two workers weren't hurt badly and were back on the job within a couple days, according to Billy Grayson, safety manager for Banks Construction, the contractor.
Another road worker in Mount Pleasant was not so fortunate. A driver hit a worker paving U.S. Highway 17 near Park West in November 2011. The worker suffered permanent brain damage and remains in assisted living, Grayson said. The driver, Daniel Hamrick of Mount Pleasant, faces a charge of felony DUI.
Senate Bill 139, known as “speeding in construction zones,” aims to slow drivers down near road work. The idea is that a patrol car sitting there will do more to slow down drivers than flagmen or orange cones. Studies in other states have shown this to be the case, according to Capps' research.
Sponsors include Republicans Larry Grooms of Bonneau and Paul Campbell of Goose Creek. Grooms, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he will move the bill to the Senate floor as soon as some more details are worked out, such as defining construction zones and how the bill would affect utility trucks working along the highway. He said he expects the bill to pass this year.
“It's common sense to take these extra steps for safety,” he said.
Under present law, a driver speeding in a construction zone can be fined from $75 to $200 and sent to jail for 30 days.
The new law covers not only speeding but also ignoring traffic-control devices and driving around work zones in lanes that are clearly off limits, and still would include jail time as well as higher fines.
Fines for offenses that don't involve physical injury start at $250 and go up to $400. If somebody gets hurt, the offender can be fined $1,000.
A driver who injures a highway worker in a construction zone can be fined up to $5,000 and imprisoned for up to two years. A driver who kills a highway worker can be fined $10,000 and sent to prison for three years.
All fines are mandatory and cannot be waived or reduced.
Finally, any offense in a construction zone carries a two-point penalty on the driver's record.
The Highway Patrol has been working with the Transportation Department to cut down accidents in work zones. A federal grant allowed troopers to be assigned to the bigger construction sites in 2006. The number of accidents dropped from 1,544 in 2005 to 472 in 2008, according to the Highway Patrol's count. But accidents have been increasing each year since then, reaching 1,404 last year.
“Safety in work zones is a continuing concern for us, which is why we have had a strong partnership with SCDOT on this issue since 2006,” Lt. Roger Hughes said. “While we do not comment on the merits of proposed legislation, we are always interested in any measures that will enhance safety on our roadways and will follow this legislation closely.”
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or follow him on Twitter @dmunday.
This Mercedes was rear-ended by a semi that was going too fast in a work zone on I-26 on Feb. 1, 2010. Crews were widening the interstate between Remount Road and I-526. The truck was heading toward Charleston, didn’t slow down in the work zone and rear-ended the car, fatally injuring a passenger.×
Stanley Simmons, with Banks Construction, directs traffic through a construction zone Wednesday as crews widen Bacons Bridge Road in Summerville. “A lot of our guys get hurt out here,” Simmons said adding only a police presence slows down traffic in construction areas.×