As the warm weather approaches, so does the increase in road work which requires a police presence to protect the workers and traveling public. The National Safety Council reported in 2018 over 46,000 people were injured or killed in crashes within roadway work zone sites. Police officers who work details in these zones are often put in danger of being injured or killed in a crash within the work zone. This happens when the work zone is not properly planned out. Federal and State regulations make such planning mandatory: “The needs and control of all road users (motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians) within the highway, or on private roads open to public travel . . . through a temporary traffic control zone shall be an essential part of highway construction, utility work, maintenance operations, and the management of traffic incidents.” 2009 Edition MUTCD Chapter 6A. A police officer hired on detail to assist directing traffic is a “road user” to be protected by a properly planned work zone. When motorists come upon a change in the traffic pattern without any warning, it can cause surprise, panic, and confusion. There is not enough time to perceive the change, plan and react accordingly which can lead to a crash in the work zone. The work zone activity can also distract a driver’s attention, which can lead to a crash, unless the driver receives positive guidance through the work zone. Frequently there is no planning: one officer is hired; a few cones are put out alongside the work vehicle; minimal or no signs are put out warning about work or changes in the road ahead; and no signs are put out informing drivers how to proceed. As a result, over the past thirty years of representing police injured in crashes in work zones, I have frequently heard from the motorist who struck the officer, “I never saw the police officer.” This is because the motorist entering the work zone gets distracted by the activity, confused about how to proceed and makes a last second maneuver without preparation to get through the work zone.
Proper signs give drivers time to perceive there is a change in the traffic pattern ahead. Other signs then need to give the driver time to understand the change ahead. Next there must be signs to inform the driver about what is expected of the driver when they arrive at the work zone. The driver needs enough signs spaced out in advance of the work zone to plan and prepare to navigate through the work zone. In a properly set up work zone, there is often a sequence of three large orange signs. For example, the first sign encountered by the driver may read “utility work ahead”. The second sign may read “right lane closed ahead.” The third sign the driver encounters may be a diagram showing a lane shift to the left. This sequence of signs spaced far enough apart lets the driver know something is going on up ahead, what the change is and what the driver needs to do when they get there. Often one of the signs in a proper work zone set up will read “police officer ahead.”
Utility, paving, and tree cutting companies, as well as public works departments, are all required by Federal and State law to carefully plan out the temporary traffic controls for each work zone before occupying the roadway. There are numerous diagrams published by the Federal Highway Administration and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in a document referred to as the MUTCD, which depict temporary traffic control plans for various work zones, such as lane closures, work zones in parts of an intersection, work zones on a curve, work zones on a two lane road, etc. These diagrams for many common typical road configurations depict the sequence of signs which must be put out in each direction and how far apart the signs must be located, based upon the speed limit of the roadway. The location of cones and persons to direct traffic, such as police officers hired on detail, are often depicted on these typical application diagrams. The MUTCD contains the traffic engineering principles and safety rules to be followed in planning temporary traffic control for a roadway work zone. Each company, utility or other entity working in the road must employ or hire a person who is knowledgeable and has been properly trained in traffic engineering principles to prepare a site specific temporary traffic control plan for each location where work is to be done.
I have represented numerous police officers seriously injured in crashes within the work zone as a result of poor or zero traffic control planning of the work zone. This must be done by the company or utility before the work zone is occupied. It is also critical that the temporary orange traffic control signs be set up approaching the work zone from all directions and all intersecting ways. It is my strong recommendation that an officer who is going to work a detail at such a work zone first drive from every direction approaching the work zone including intersecting ways and nearby parking lot exits. As you drive approaching the work zone, consider the driver who hasn’t seen the work zone yet. Look at the signs and consider whether enough information and time is provided to a driver before they reach the work zone about what to do when they get there. For nearby parking lot exits, consider whether the work zone vehicles and activity create obstructed views to drivers turning into or out of the exits. Will those drivers need additional assistance in getting in and out of the parking lot? Look at the patterns of traffic cones and other orange traffic control devices which are laid out to channel and direct approaching drivers. Does it seem like there were enough on every approach? Does it seem like they were spaced out far enough to transition drivers to a new lane of travel? Finally consider whether there are enough officers hired to deal with all the different traffic approaches.
The officer hired on a detail is not the entire plan. You are one part of what should be a thoughtfully laid out temporary traffic control plan for that particular location. I’ve seen too many tragically injured police officers at work zones where they were the only officer hired. One officer may be fine for a dead end or a cul de sac. But consider a two lane road where one of the opposite lanes of traffic is blocked; or consider a work zone which appears after a long curve in the road hidden from the view of drivers entering the curve; consider a busy four way intersection; or a T intersection with a main thoroughfare with multiple lanes in each direction. Do you think one officer is enough for these locations? I can tell you the injured officers who I have represented, many of whom lost their careers, didn’t think so after they got injured in a crash in the work zone. You need to think about your safety before you start taking up your position. Ask the foreman or supervisor to review what work will be done, when and where. Where will equipment be moving and when. Ask to see if there is a written plan and look it over. If no written plan, ask what the plan is. This should all be done before the work site is occupied. If you feel you are being put in a challenging position and you are not satisfied with the safety of the work zone, then contact a shift supervisor to come down to the work site. You don’t need to have been educated in traffic engineering principles of how to design a safe traffic control plan for a work zone. If traffic control planning for a work zone where you are hired to work on a detail doesn’t look right or feel right, then stop and ask questions. Demand more be done. The life you save may be your own.
In the event of an injury-on-duty caused by poor planning or set-up, contact us immediately so we may begin our investigation as soon as possible. Work-zone traffic control devices will inevitably be moved or changed after a crash or other work zone injury, so it is critical someone in the department photograph, diagram and record the conditions of the work-zone. This should be done for all approaches to the work zone and include any signs, cones or other orange traffic control devices as they existed at the time of the incident, as well as gather critical documents, statements, and other important information.
– Steven M. Ballin