By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Recently there have been a lot of people working on our roadways. They are either fixing the roads or working on water pipes and other utilities installed beneath the pavement, but no matter the nature of the project, it’s dangerous work. Each worker has to rely on signs, Day-Glo yellow attire and motorists’ understanding of the law to protect them from multi-ton vehicles roaring by them at high speed.
I can testify that these precautions don’t always work. Last Monday I was heading to the Mercer Mall to do a story when I stopped for the construction on Bluefield Avenue. The traffic lights were still functioning, but workers with stop signs were controlling the scene. From what I recall from my driver’s ed lessons in high school, a stop sign at a work site trumps traffic lights. You proceed only when a sign with Slow on it replaces the “Stop” sign.
I stopped and waited to proceed. In a few moments, the worker turned his sign from Stop to Slow, and I headed out. At that same moment, the light at the intersection of Federal Street and Bluefield Avenue must have turned green, because an SUV went right past the sign man and headed straight for me. He yelled and waived and did everything short of bashing that car with his sign, but she just kept coming. Then she saw me and stared, plainly not sure what to do. Another worker ran over and pulled away a couple of traffic cones so she could get out of the lane.
If we were in a different place and going faster, that encounter wouldn’t have been so funny. It would have been a head-on collision. That’s why we need to pay attention.
A lot of road work is underway across the state right now. I see the “Road Work Ahead” signs along the highways all the time. When I see one, I know that I have to get ready to change my plans a bit. The right lane or left lane may be closed, and there are probably some workers on the scene. I know the speed limit will be 55 mph at most. There are even these machines that let you know how fast you’re driving before you reach the site. I like to see how close I can get to hitting the limit; ideally, I’ll be right at the 55 mark.
Yes, there are lots of precautions, but too often I have a tailgater who wants to go as fast as possible or somebody ahead of me who won’t get into the correct lane until the last possible moment. The idea that they might actually hit somebody doesn’t seem to occur to them.
I see the same sort of thing happening when a deputy or trooper has a vehicle pulled over. You can see their blue lights flashing for miles, but not everyone moves into the passing lane to give officers and the folks who were pulled over some extra room. Fortunately, I’m seeing more people do that.
Of course, there are times when you can’t easily pull to the side. This usually happens at a crash scene. Sometimes the first responders stop all traffic until the people in the crash are aided and the wreckage is cleared away. Until that happens, a crash is a hazardous place to be; especially when a lane is open to cars and trucks. You have to watch where you’re stepping because those passing motorists might be, as the term goes, “rubbernecking.” Drivers are watching the crash instead of driving. I’ve seen traffic that was backed up for miles simply because people were slowing down so they can see the wreckage. One time when I was visiting some friends in Chicago, I saw a rubbernecker line that extended for miles. The crash wasn’t even in our lane. We were held up for at least 30 minutes because some people had to slow down and look at the wreckage.
I remember an even worse instance years ago near Princeton when a tanker truck carrying diesel fuel crashed and came to rest next to a convenience store. There was a fire and the tanker was near some gas pumps. A West Virginia trooper told me later that he had to “get mean” with some drivers because they were parking along the side of the road to watch the fire.
Virginia State troopers were worried about a possible rubbernecking accident when photographer Jon Bolt and myself went to a crash along Interstate 77 in Bland County, Va. The crash scene was in the northbound lanes, so Jon and I parked along the southbound lanes and crossed the highway. A trooper immediately said we needed to come around to the northbound lanes; there were fears that a distracted driver would hit us. Jon stayed to take picture while I drove his car to the next exit and came back around. Fortunately, the traffic was moving and I was able to reach the scene, but I understood the trooper’s point. We didn’t need to give the first responders more work to do.
We all need to stay alert when we drive, but we should take even more care when passing a construction site or the scene of a crash. The workers and first responders don’t have any physical protection against speeding vehicles. All they have are lights, signs and the attentiveness of passing motorists.
Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org