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7 Hidden Dangers in Road Construction Work Zones

Orange road work ahead sign against a blue sky
Construction zones can be incredibly dangerous for workers. Drive with caution and patience.

Even the most experienced driver can come across road construction and become disoriented. From lane closures to rapidly changing speed limits, road construction presents a host of challenges for truck drivers and highway construction workers alike. Here are seven ways that road construction can pose dangers, and how to safely navigate through them.


1. Sudden orange signage

The color orange spells “caution” on the road, but roadwork isn’t always easy to anticipate. You might be enjoying a scenic mountain drive and come around a curve to a paving project or guardrail replacement. Obeying the posted speed limit and paying attention to the road ahead if you’re driving is the best way to react to sudden changes on the highway. Even if you see a bright orange construction vehicle ahead of you on the road, don’t assume they’re going as fast as you. Heavy equipment moves slowly, and you’ll need to slow down too, to avoid a collision.

2. Road rage and impatience

Stopped at a construction site and waiting for your turn to drive a new one-lane road can be frustrating. On quiet mountain roads you might be tempted to “take your chances” and drive before the light turns green. But remember that you don’t know what is happening down the road. Your impatience might save you a few minutes, but when you hit oncoming traffic or equipment down the road, you’ll be sorry you didn’t just wait your turn.

3. Treating construction workers badly

Between 2003 and 2017, 1,844 workers lost their lives at road construction sites, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. When a construction worker is waiting to flag your lane through, don’t give them grief for the wait. They’re working long, hot hours to improve the roads you’re traveling on. Give them a break (or brake, if you rather). In fact, states have steep fines and even jail time for disobeying posted speed limits in construction zones or striking a worker.

4. Loose gravel and skidding tires

Paving or resurfacing roads is a messy business. In the process of improving roads, there are cycles of excavation and rebuilding asphalt that can place a great deal of loose gravel, sticky tar, oil, or even sand on the road. You may not be able to anticipate how your vehicle will react to the changing surface. At night, or in severe weather or even in twilight you may not be able to tell where hard, smooth surfaces become shifting gravel. In construction areas, drive carefully and slowly to avoid sliding, or kicking up gravel and cracking a windshield.

5. Bypassing on the back roads

When a project shuts down all lanes and sends you on a detour, you’ll need to pay attention to signage to get you back on track to your destination. Remember that side streets aren’t as speedy as highways, and slow your speed. Folks who live on frontage roads don’t want to see you come barreling down their normally quiet roadway, especially when small children, or slow-moving farm equipment are already using that road. Passing at high speed just to “get ahead” of another truck or piece of farm equipment doesn’t save you much time along the way, and instead puts many vehicles in danger. Use patience and everyone will get where they’re going safely.

6. Slow drives up and down long hills

On small mountain roads under construction, you may find yourself behind a long, slow moving line of traffic going up or down a curving hill. Sometimes this can put drivers on edge, especially when you aren’t used to driving on the edge of steep roads or when you’re unused to driving at altitude. A few tips can keep your vehicle running well and avoid trouble:

  • Give yourself more room between the vehicle in front of you. You may not have as much time to stop safely in new and shifting road conditions.
  • Watch your engine temperature. If your engine begins to overheat, pull over to the side (if safe), raise the hood, and let your vehicle cool down.
  • Going downhill, keep steady, gentle pressure on the brake instead of jabbing at it. You can also shift into a lower gear on steep downgrades. Be careful of your overall speed, as even downshifted vehicles can accelerate quickly.
  • Avoid passing vehicles and stay in your lane, especially on tight corners or curves.

7. Plan trips around construction

If you have the ability to pre-plan your route, most state transportation departments maintain online maps of ongoing road construction projects. (Check out this one in Montana.) Especially if you’re towing a large load you’ll want to check clearance on your chosen route. Some projects only allow heavy vehicles to drive through at certain shifts during the day, with a pilot car leading the way. Other detours might create problems if your oversize load is too tall for underpasses or narrow bridges. Always know exactly how long, tall, and heavy your tow load is, to avoid problems.

With a little bit of patience and forethought, you can make sure that “construction season” is also a safe driving season.

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