Perhaps you’ve become immune to them: those ubiquitous orange cones along the side of the highway, the “WORK ZONE” signs that announce a lower speed limit and a high mandatory fine for speeding.
But the tragic deaths last week of two highway maintenance workers in Horry County should be a sobering reminder to all of us that those signs and cones aren’t just there to inconvenience us, and the heavy fines aren’t there just to annoy us.
They’re there to protect the lives of highway workers, many of whom have to do their jobs within feet of traffic zooming by at 50, 70, 90 mph. Workers whose lives are endangered when a moment’s distraction — the type that we never believe will occur, the type that we usually have room to compensate for — causes a car to veer off course for an instant.
That distraction could be caused by texting or getting into an intense a conversation on the phone or eating lunch or applying makeup or a million other things we shouldn’t be doing while we’re driving. (Texting, by the way, is illegal in South Carolina — as is any other “distracted” driving, regardless of the cause.)
And the faster we’re driving, the more distance we travel in an instant, the more dangerous that distraction is — and the more avoidable the accident was.
Cecil Morgan and David Sibbick were the 84th and 85th S.C. Department of Transportation employees killed on the job since the agency began keeping track. They were just doing their jobs for us — filling a pothole on U.S. 501 — when a tractor-trailer hit two cars that were stopped in traffic, then hit them, struck a DOT vehicle and crashed into a tree. Six other people were injured.
As Mr. Sibbick’s father told WMBF-TV in Myrtle Beach, “Ten more seconds is not gonna matter except to somebody that’s never gonna have 10 more seconds.”
The Federal Highway Administration says construction-zone fatalities are increasing at double the rate of all traffic fatalities nationally, at least in part as a result of the increasing amount of highway construction and repair work that states are undertaking. South Carolina is in the midst of a long-overdue repair spree that our state embarked on after lawmakers raised the gasoline tax in 2017 to help make our roads safer.
But of course the work that goes into safety improvements is anything but safe. And the extra amount of work has contributed to the ubiquity of those work-zone signs, which aren’t always accompanied by workers.
The Transportation Department should consider how it lulls drivers into complacency when it leaves the signs up when no actual construction is taking place. It should consider covering them during the days (or even the partial days) when there are no workers present.
Still, every one of us has an obligation to obey the signs, whether any workers are present or not, and to pay extra attention while we’re driving through construction zones. For that matter, we need to pay a lot more attention than we do all of the time. Although there’s something particularly awful about people killed when they’re on the job, doing the work we want done, the fact is that people die every day on our highways — 548 through July — because of our inattention and speed and carelessness.