(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) A line of Texas Transportation Department workers in orange safety vests stood before a memorial that lists the names of 24 Houston-area highway workers who've been killed on the job since 1951. They held photos of friends they work with and family members they go home to every day.
TXDot supervisor Jeff Volk says they all have stories about close calls in work zones. He keeps a crumpled hard hat to remember his brush with a big rig. "I was out on State Highway 146 in a coned-off lane of the freeway, when an 18-wheeler doing 65 miles-per-hour sucked the helmet right off my head, and it banged down the concrete pavement in the draft of that big truck and five or six people ran over it."
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was one of the speakers at a Houston event marking National Work Zone Awareness Week, an annual campaign sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. Garcia doesn't mince words when he talks about the dangers TXDot employees face every day.
"Construction workers are having to dodge flying debris, tires that come off, tread that comes off other vehicles, rocks that are being clipped by tires, loads that are being lost. They are having to dodge all of these dangers and they don't need an idiot of a driver not paying attention." He says all that stands between a worker and a fast-moving vehicle is "a flimsy cone, a simple barricade, a sign. That's all that's protecting them."
TXDot says at any given time there are more than 1000 work zones on the state's 80,000 miles of highways. 100 people were killed in work zone accidents in Texas in 2010. That includes both workers and people in vehicles. The Houston area had over 2800 work zone crashes that left 21 people dead.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClellan says drivers need to realize there's little room for error when crews are working in the next lane. "People don't realize how just trying to change the station on your radio, or making a call on your cell phone, or exceeding the speed limit can change someone's life instantly by having a fatal crash."
So what's behind these wrecks? TXDot says they're caused primarily by drivers who are drunk, speeding, following too closely, or simply not paying attention. Of the the 100 Texas fatalities in 2010, officials say more than 60% had to do with alcohol, drugs, distracted driving, or a combination of the three. Statistics show 45% of fatal work zone accidents are caused by drivers under 35. Most of the people who die in work zone accidents are drivers or their passengers.
Former TXDot District Engineer Delvin Dennis remembers the phone call he got back in 2008 telling him a worker had been killed by a drunk driver on a freeway near downtown Houston. "Life is busy, time is precious, but please understand when you're in a hurry and drive dangerously through a work zone, you're not just putting the lives of highway workers at risk, you're risking your own life and the lives of other motorists."
Texas law is tough on drivers who are ticketed in work zones, even if there's not an accident. The law allows for the usual traffic fines to be doubled.
You can listen to the KUHF story here.