WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of people killed in highway work zones is at an all-time high, as orange cones proliferate on crowded roads and harried motorists ignore signs warning them to slow down.
A record 872 people were killed in work zones in 1999, surpassing the 828 deaths recorded in 1994, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics show.
Most of those killed in work zone crashes were occupants of vehicles that collided with other cars or ran into construction equipment alongside the highway. Between 1995 and 1999, motorists accounted for 84 percent of work zone fatalities.
``People are dying in these work zones,'' said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the AAA motor clubs. ``People are distracted by the construction. They tend to get more aggressive because they're frustrated by the fact that it's taking longer to get through it, and they disobey the speed limit.''
A House subcommittee on Tuesday looked at the increase in work zone deaths and ways to reverse the trend.
``We owe it to the motorists who have to navigate cars, trucks and buses through these work zones, and we owe it to the construction and maintenance workers, who labor day and night to get the job done, to do everything that we reasonably can to make sure these work zones are safe,'' said Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on highways and transit.
Even though motorists die most often, the people who most fear work-zone accidents are construction workers.
``Imagine if your work station was literally four feet from cars and trucks moving at 55 miles per hour or more,'' said William Toohey, senior vice president for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a construction industry group. ``That's the environment facing highway workers.''
In May 1998, a motorist driving drunk in a lane closed to traffic by orange barrels hit and killed a worker painting lines along newly paved Interstate 94 in Wisconsin. The driver pleaded no contest to three charges, including two homicide charges, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
And in February 2000, a 74-year-old woman drove past three construction signs along U.S. 12 in Washington state and killed a state Transportation Department flagger. She was convicted of vehicular homicide.
The number of deaths in work-zone crashes grew 25 percent between 1997 and 1999, as the amount of money spent on highway construction rose. Federal spending on roads grew from $49 million to $58 million over the same two-year period, an increase of 18 percent, and rose to a projected $65 million in the current fiscal year, according to The Road Information Program, a research group financed by the construction industry.
Almost every state reports at least 100 work zones at a given time, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Virginia alone has had as many as 600 at a time.
From reduced speed limits to warning signs reading, ``Slow down. My mommy works here,'' state transportation agencies have been trying to curb the growth in fatal accidents.
They are doubling fines for speeding; requiring that more work be done at night when traffic is lighter; installing more message signs to warn motorists about the work; trying to keep all lanes open through a work zone to keep traffic moving; and even closing a road entirely in order to speed construction along.
Meanwhile, motorists keep speeding by.
``The traffic just blows by; it really does,'' said Stephen Wiltshire, corporate safety director for the Shirley Contracting Corp. of Lorton, Va., a company helping to rebuild the interchange of Interstates 95, 395 and 495 south of Washington.
``I can put a fence up around a convention center (under construction),'' said Wiltshire. ``I can't do that here. People are going to be right beside our guys every day at 70 miles an hour.''
The owner of Sterndahl Enterprises of Sun Valley, Calif., knows what it's like to lose a worker on the job. The worker was killed when a driver sped through a work zone and smashed into the vehicle pavement marking truck the employee was standing behind.
``It was a real challenge to go back to that section of highway and complete the work,'' said the company's owner, Dennis Sterndahl.