MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Road construction season is underway in Minnesota.
For many drivers, work zones are nothing more than the obstacle that slows them down on the way to their destination. And this year, travelers are finding that passing through some work zones is taking longer than ever before.
A new law is on the books that drops speed limits in many construction sites across the state.
Every time Deb Carlson passes through a road construction site, she’s reminded of how a work zone changed her life.
In 2011, Deb’s husband, Craig, and another man, Ron Rajkowski, were killed while working at a construction site on I-35W near Burnsville.
“We had been together for 20 years, married for 17,” she said. “He was on a job site and a young gentleman lost control and hit him with his car.”
That loss helped bring a new law slowing speeds around road crews.
“That’s why the law is so important, so someone didn’t have to suffer the same fate we did,” Carlson said.
At a construction site near Rush City, vehicles sped past workers standing about a foot away.
“We’re playing in traffic every day,” said Eric Johnson of Street Smart Rental. “The same things we tell our kids not to do, we go out and do it for a career.”
The close proximity made it feel like vehicles were going faster than the posted 50 miles per hour.
Construction safety consultant Eric Johnson brought a radar gun to check driver speeds.
For an hour, he clocked dozens of cars and trucks ignoring the posted speed limit and construction cones.
Some drivers were going faster than 70 miles an hour, but most traffic was within 10 miles over the limit.
Johnson said even a slight increase in speed can be the difference in preventing a crash.
“The lower the speeds, the more the reaction time for the driver increases,” Johnson said.
It’s why the original law called for a 45 mph speed limit, but exceptions were added in that allowed for higher limits in certain speed zones. The I-35E project in St. Paul is an example, with a posted speed of 55.
Concrete barriers offer extra protection for workers, allowing traffic to move faster. Still, Johnson has research showing drivers push the limit, averaging 10 to 15 miles over.
“From my perspective, people are in their head, focused forward and not on their speed,” Johnson said.
Ken Johnson is the State Work Zone, Pavement Marking and Traffic Devices Engineer at MnDOT.
“Sometimes, it’s more of a danger to the workers and the traveling public, and the workers, if you put up an unreasonably low speed limit,” he said.
The law allows an engineer to set the limit after taking road environment, the project and workers into consideration.
Ken Johnson said the hope is to avoid a speed differential that could create another risk to construction crews.
“I’m concerned about intrusions, at that point,” he said. “People coming up to someone going slow, not realizing it, and evasive maneuvering into work zone.”
Of the roughly 180 projects scheduled for the summer months, only about 10 percent will have speed zones set at 45 miles per hour.
“We need the flexibility to make the speed limit appropriate to what the environment tells the driver they can drive,” Ken said.
For Deb Carlson, this is just the starting point to raise driver awareness as Minnesotans speed through another construction season.
“We’re not done fighting to get stuff changed,” Carlson said. “I do get frustrated because it’s something so simple, and it doesn’t take much time. It will save themselves, if not somebody else.”
Carlson said changing driver behavior in work zones goes beyond changing speed limits. Construction contracting is adding visual barriers like cones, flashing lights and heavy machinery to alert drivers to slow down.