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MDOT officials: Work zone safety top priority

By By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
July 1, 2002
Officials with the Mississippi Department of Transportation say that keeping motorists and road workers safe in work zones is a top priority.
In the Meridian area, MDOT is currently working on two projects to resurface sections of I-20/59.
One, a $10.3 million project from Alabama to Highway 19, should be finished by August. The other, a $10.1 million project from 65th Avenue to Newton County, should be completed next month.
Within the past two months alone in Meridian, four separate accidents have ground traffic to a standstill near those ongoing road construction sites. And the latest accident, on June 20, killed two and critically injured another in a 10-car pileup near the construction east of the city.
Kenneth Wallace, MDOT Fifth District assistant engineer, and MDOT safety engineer Jim Willis met with The Meridian Star Editorial Board last week to discuss how its department works to keep the roads safe.
The Star: How do you combat the problem of motorists who ignore the signs warning of road construction and don't slow down until they actually see the work? Has there been anything MDOT has done lately to change its approach to those warning signs?
Kenneth Wallace: We've changed some of the ways we advance sign projects. When I first started with MDOT we would put advance warning signs at the beginning of the project at each end, and at the end of the project. And that was pretty much it. It was there to let you know that you were entering a work zone area and that would be work going on the next few miles down the road.
In an effort to better centralize and make the signs more applicable, we now concentrate on specific areas of the project where the signs will go up.
Now all of the signage is geared specifically for the area of the project that the contractor is working on. So now, for instance, if you have a lane closer you've got signs warning you of 1 mile ahead, 1/2 mile ahead, a speed limit reduction and the merger signs. Those are now located within the project where it's needed at the work zone.
The Star: Do you ever ask local law enforcement to help you in monitoring speeding motorists in the work zones?
Wallace: Yes. When we have jobs like the two we currently have going in Meridian, before we even get started our engineer sends a letter to the local county sheriff's office, to the chief of police if it's in or near a certain city  and certainly the Mississippi Highway Patrol advising them that there will construction in this area at the approximate time frame and the nature of the construction. Any kind of help we can get from them we appreciate it. We wish it were more, but they probably wish we had better highways too.
The Star: Most of the accidents here in Meridian near work zone areas has been due to traffic backing up at lane mergers. When you have a high volume of cars merging from two to one lane, how can that process run smoothly?
Wallace: If they all move in a platoon at the same speed, everything works perfect. But if one person in the line is startled by something and jams on their brakes  assuming we don't have an accident and everyone is attentive  then you start a ripple affect. Every person in that line then must use their brakes at that point. And it takes hours for that to finally work its way out of the pack. It's amazing, I mean, it really is amazing how that works. Everybody is just right on each others bumper trying to get where they're going in a hurry.
The Star: When there is an accident in the work zones, is there always a way in which the accident could have been preventive or are some just doomed to happen?
Jim Willis: Before a crash occurs, there's always someone on-site that can rectify the situation. 100 percent of the time there's always someone there and that's the driver. If they're paying attention and being alert, you won't have a problem. You'll open a door for someone and hold it open, but if someone starts to merge in front of you on the interstate, do you slow down and let them in? Generally not. That's just how we've become in society.
The Star: What can be done on the project site if your workers start to notice a potential problem arising?
Wallace: Once we perceive a problem on a project, we can go and do ask the contractor to try to end his work. It could be anything from putting up guard rails to paving or anything. If it's something we can ask him to stop and move, to pull out the lane closures, we'll get him to do that.
And once we have a problem, it's not just a five minute thing to pull down a lane closure. We've got three miles of cones, barrels and barricades already up. And if we're paving, we can't just turn vehicles loose on wet pavement. So it can takes a while. So yes, we do have some control when we're at the site to stop a project.