Fully Aware

Jan. 1, 2006

Here’s a little known historical fact: The idea of “Work Zone Awareness Week” came from an assistant resident engineer in Virginia DOT’s (VDOT) Bristol District, named Allan Sumpter, back in 1997.

Sumpter was part of a district committee who looked for ways to increase safety awareness for VDOT employees—specifically in roadway work zones. The district decided to try his idea in 1997 at the start of the construction year. For the first time ever, all eyes were on work zones that April.

Here’s a little known historical fact: The idea of “Work Zone Awareness Week” came from an assistant resident engineer in Virginia DOT’s (VDOT) Bristol District, named Allan Sumpter, back in 1997.

Sumpter was part of a district committee who looked for ways to increase safety awareness for VDOT employees—specifically in roadway work zones. The district decided to try his idea in 1997 at the start of the construction year. For the first time ever, all eyes were on work zones that April.

Based on the positive reception of the idea in the district, a VDOT task group met and developed plans to do it again as a statewide program in the spring of 1998. David Rush, a VDOT senior transportation engineer, was part of that task group.

Rush had the willingness and desire to help spread VDOT’s message even further, with hopes of taking the message nationally. He took the idea to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA).

Rush shared the idea with ATSSA’s Safety and Public Awareness Committee, and from there the rest is history. Over the years that followed, the work-zone safety and awareness message would not only spread nationally, it would reach into other audiences beyond roadway workers, including America’s motorists, elected officials, schools, law enforcement and the media.

Spreading fast

Within a year of Rush pitching the idea to ATSSA, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), ATSSA and the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials signed an agreement to jointly lead—every year in April—an aggressive public relations campaign, National Work Zone Awareness Week, that has since spread to almost every state DOT across the country. Rush continues to serve as a member of the National Work Zone Awareness Week Executive Committee to this day, while continuing to maintain a strong allegiance to his state’s own work-zone safety initiatives.

Until this campaign actively began with its first national media event in April 2000, the majority of the motoring public had no idea that work-zone safety was such an important issue. More importantly, what the public did not know was the majority of people killed in work zones were not the workers themselves, but motorists. The latest numbers from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis reveal 1,068 people were killed in 2004 in work zones. Four-out-of-five people in that statistic are found in the non-worker category.

“The problem is not limited to one area of the country,” said Rush. “Work-zone awareness is everyone’s issue.”

That first National Work Zone Awareness Week event in April 2000 was held in Springfield, Va. That solemn ceremony occurred near a work zone adjacent to I-95, just south of Washington, D.C. This event highlighted a family from North Carolina whose 18-year-old son—a work-zone worker—was killed just one week after he joined his company. Never before had the media, nor the public, heard a real-life testimonial from a family who suffered such a tragic loss. The event drew national media attention, and in remarks given by featured guest speakers and through special literature prepared for the event, a basic set of “safety tips to live by” was published to begin a public education phase of the campaign that would soon spread beyond the Springfield event.

The safety tips appeared on posters that were mailed by the FHWA to DOTs nationwide. Many of the basic safety tips remain relevant today, including being alert when entering work zones, paying close attention, limiting distractions and expecting the unexpected.

“It’s one thing to say we need to reduce accidents and injuries in work zones, but we had to tell the public how they could help do that,” Rush said.

By the time plans were underway for the second national event scheduled for April 2001, over 40 interested partners had joined the cause.

These included such groups as the National Association of County Engineers, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Maryland DOT, the District of Columbia DOT and others.

ATSSA members also were taking the issue directly to their elected officials, to members of law enforcement, to school classrooms and to other agencies and organizations who expressed an interest in helping to save lives. The momentum of this event continued for months to come, as similar events were now being conducted in a variety of locations across the country, not only during April’s National Work Zone Awareness Week, but at various other times throughout the year. These subsequent annual events began to draw elected officials, top leadership from the U.S. DOT and local and national media. Most importantly, the event had now become commonplace outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway.

Safety by state

The next time you are surfing the Internet, pick a DOT and search on their website for “work-zone safety.” You will be surprised to find out how most of them have adopted a campaign, a slogan and for some, even a mascot. As a result of thinking beyond the work zone, innovative law-enforcement ideas also have been created to lower speeds in work zones designed to cite aggressive drivers.

New safety devices, signage and garments have been developed and produced to help save lives. Innovative “positive separation” strategies have been developed and deployed that separate workers and their equipment from traffic. ATSSA training for work-zone workers has increased and is in demand, and you may see billboard campaigns or hear public service announcements on radio and television related to the topic. Even local radio traffic reporters in large metropolitan areas alert commuters as to where they can expect a work zone during their trips to and from work. The list of creative strategies to get the word out and help save lives in work zones seems endless.

Some notable examples include the Georgia DOT. According to their website, the DOT “participates in a statewide work-zone safety awareness and education campaign designed to educate highway construction and maintenance workers, contractors and the motoring public about the dangerous conditions in work zones.”

In California, you will find that Caltrans has built an entire campaign—”Slow for the Cone Zone”—to help raise public awareness. This campaign is described at their website as a “social marketing, public awareness campaign that warns California motorists of the hazards associated with driving recklessly through California’s work zones.”

Caltrans also has produced radio and television public-service announcements, brochures and literature, and even coordinates a statewide billboard campaign to keep the message in the public eye.

The Maine DOT is another example of a state with an innovative strategy to raise awareness.

Two years ago, that state conducted a “Work Zone Safety Challenge” that featured 38 team entries with 256 participants. The activity was held in recognition of National Work Zone Awareness Week, with an “aim to get everyone thinking about safety around work zones, whether they are working in them, or driving through them.”

Not only has the work-zone safety campaign migrated nationwide, it has expanded within the roots of its founders.

Back in Virginia, Rush was busy last year with the unveiling and dedication of the “Va.-DOT Workers’ Memorial,” a distinctive granite monument situated at a scenic overlook on I-64 near Afton Mountain, Va. This memorial was dedicated recently to the memory of 129 Virginia workers who died of job-related causes on roadways since the 1930s.

VDOT also has taken their work-zone awareness message to schools to help educate young children of the dangers of roadway work zones, and has found ways to insert the message into driver education curriculum in high schools.

For the people

ATSSA also has taken the event from one week in April to a year-round awareness campaign in several different ways.

The American Traffic Safety Services (ATSS) Foundation helps children and their families through educational scholarships for children of workers killed or permanently disabled in work-zone accidents. These scholarships are used to support higher education at the college or vocational level. Parents with custody or legal guardianship of surviving children also are eligible for these scholarships.

The ATSS Foundation’s “Life Behind the Cones and Barrel—How Roadway Workers Keep America Moving” poster contest helps educate young people about work-zone safety, before they begin to drive, by taking the issue to them in grades K through six. Students in this age group are invited to draw their impressions of roadway work zones and then submit their artwork to an ATSS Foundation contest that awards cash prizes directly to the students, with matching amounts to their schools. Winning posters appear in a work-zone safety calendar, which is available to the roadway safety industry every year.

And, of course, there is the ATSS Foundation’s National Work Zone Memorial. This 28-ft-long traveling exhibition has become a “national icon” for work-zone safety, consistently drawing the attention of the public, elected officials and the media at work-zone awareness activities held throughout the year across the country.

The memorial has traveled to countless site dedications, state fairs and other events across the country, carrying the message of work-zone safety and awareness everywhere it goes. Over the years the memorial has received its share of “dings and dents” from routine use and shipping, and as a result it will receive a complete makeover in early 2006.

The original memorial weighed in at hundreds of pounds, and was packed tightly for shipping into three large, wooden, custom-made crates. A completely new, lightweight, redesigned National Work Zone Memorial will be unveiled at ATSSA’s 36th Annual Convention and Traffic Expo in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (March 3-7). Following that event, the memorial will be shipped to locations that have reserved it nationwide as part of their own local work-zone safety events.

Martin Weed, a Washington State work-zone traffic control engineer, has personally led five efforts in his home state to host the memorial. In Washington State, the memorial has provided significant meaning to roadway workers, and much-needed closure to families who have lost a loved one. “I hear comments all the time from our workers that this [the memorial] is an excellent way to remember our people, and families really appreciate it as a permanent tribute to their lost loved ones,” said Weed.

National Work Zone Awareness Week is April 3-9. The 2006 theme will highlight the dangers associated with night work zones, focusing on the many locations across the country that performs work during these off-peak hours.

About The Author: Baron is ATSSA’s Director of Communications.

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