The effort to widen 11 miles of Interstate 40 in Wake and Johnston counties will ramp up this summer, and when it does as many as 500 people will be working on the road, often just a few feet from traffic.
To help keep them safe, the N.C. Department of Transportation will use some new tools, including digital speed limit signs that can be changed depending on the conditions and balloon-like lights that shine down on nighttime work areas and perk up drowsy or distracted drivers.
But state officials say work zone safety still largely depends on drivers slowing down and being alert. There were 7,353 crashes in work zones last year, resulting in 32 deaths — all of them drivers or passengers in cars and trucks.
“As a driver, you need to use extra caution in work zones to keep yourself and others safe,” said Mark Ezzell, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “In short, you need to drive like you work here.”
Ezzell was speaking at a news conference along the ramp from Jones Sausage Road onto I-40, a stretch of highway that has been shifted and narrowed by concrete barriers as contractors prepare to add two lanes in each direction between the Beltline and N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community. It’s one of two major interstate construction projects taking place in the Triangle this year; the widening of a four-mile stretch of the Beltline on the west side of Raleigh is expected to get underway in June.
Both projects will take several years. In addition to adding lanes to I-40 between Raleigh and Cleveland, workers will replace 15 bridges, rebuild four interchanges and create a new one at Cleveland Road by the summer of 2022, said Matt Davis, the project manager for S.T. Wooten, the main contractor.
Excessive speed and distracted driving are factors in most work zone crashes, state officials say, and Davis echoed their plea for drivers to go easy through them.
“The shoulders and the lanes are narrowed in these work zones,” he said. “So if you come racing up behind somebody or you’re tailgating and following too close and they slam on the brakes, there’s no shoulder for you to go to.”
Tuesday’s press conference marked the beginning of the spring and summer construction season on North Carolina highways and coincides with a national work zone safety week. Also this week, the State Highway Patrol will step up its enforcement in work zones, where a speeding ticket brings an automatic $250 fine.
For information about N.C. Vision Zero, the state’s ongoing campaign to reduce highway deaths, go to ncvisionzero.org/.