By Chris Lockwood, NJDOT Crew Supervisor
You’re on the shoulder of a three-lane highway when an 18-wheeler rushes past you at 70 miles per hour, just a few feet from where you’re standing. As the rear of the truck passes, you feel an invisible force pulling your whole body toward it into the path of oncoming traffic.
It’s hard for the average motorist to imagine what it feels like to stand this close to speeding traffic, but thousands of New Jersey highway workers do – and I’m one of them.
What do you think about when you see orange construction signs, people in hard hats, and cones, barrels, or barriers on the road?
“I hope this doesn’t affect my commute.”
“Can’t they do this work on the weekend?”
“This is going to make me late.”
More than likely, however, you don’t really think about it at all. Work zones and roadside construction are such a common sight they’ve almost become invisible to most motorists. My perspective from behind the barrier is a little different.
I’ve been a New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) employee for 18 years, 15 of those spent working on our state and interstate highways. I was a maintenance worker, truck driver, and highway operations technician – but I’m also a husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend. When motorists speed or drive recklessly through work zones, they not only put themselves in danger, but they also endanger the lives of all of those working on the road. We all want and deserve to go home to our families at the end of our shift.
I know it’s hard to imagine what this kind of work is like if you’ve never done it before. That’s why I want to share some of my first-hand experiences with you, to give you an idea of what working on New Jersey’s roadways can be like. Highway workers put their lives in your hands, so put yourself in their shoes.
Work zones can be a stretch of highway protected by concrete barriers, a slow-moving piece of equipment safeguarded by cones, or even an emergency perimeter set up for first responders at the scene of a roadway incident. Whether conducting routine maintenance, large-scale construction, or first responder assistance, highway workers are on that road to protect you or to improve your ride.
NJDOT crews plan and lay out work zones with everyone’s safety in mind. They are trained and prepared to adapt to changing situations, work under adverse conditions, and complete the tasks assigned to them. These crews can control a lot of their environment, but some things are out of their hands.
Highway work zones are an intense environment. Noise levels can range from 80 decibels (the sound of a lawn mower) to 130 decibels or more (the sound of a jet taking off). Conditions like this add an extra layer of difficulty and distraction every time our crews are on the road.
Vehicles, especially large trucks, create an air wake when driving at high rates of speed. This unpredictable rush of wind can blow the hard hat off your head, push you off balance, or even pull you into a live lane of traffic.
Let’s throw weather into the scenario. Can you imagine working in a torrential rainstorm? Our crews regularly patrol the highways during storms to prevent flooding and remove fallen trees and debris. These dedicated professionals are out working in all weather conditions, keeping the roads clear and safe for the public and emergency first responders. During a hurricane or snowstorm, NJDOT crews work around the clock in shifts, sometimes sheltering in place, away from their families, until their next shift starts. They don’t go home until the storm is over and the highway conditions are safe.
How you choose to drive through a work zone is one thing our crews cannot control – but you can. You can decide to drive with more awareness every time you encounter a safety work zone, whether it’s for a crew clearing a downed tree, maintenance workers repairing guiderail, an overnight paving operation, a large-scale bridge replacement, or first responders doing everything they can to help in an emergency. Highway workers take a risk every time they are on the job. It only takes a second for a driver’s inattentiveness, erratic action, or high speed to cause a crash that impacts a work zone and the crew. The consequences can be disastrous and, in some cases, fatal.
Our crews see unimaginable sights every day and somehow find a way to compartmentalize them and continue to perform their job. I will never forget the day I had to close a highway where a plane had crashed. I knew the people onboard tragically did not survive, but my job was to clear the highway for emergency vehicles and first responders.
The people that make up the NJDOT are a family, and I am tired of seeing my family get injured or worse while trying to do their jobs.
When you are approaching a work zone, put all distractions away – that call or text can wait. Pay attention and keep calm – anger won’t change the situation. Slow down and move over – give them space to work.
NJDOT highway workers, law enforcement, first responders, and tow truck operators take pride in their jobs, they deserve your respect and they deserve to get home to their family safely.