November 20, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Drivers ignore construction zones

High speeds put Metro Detroit road workers in danger

Detroit News columnist Tom Greenwood tracks southbound drivers at Interstate 75 and Nine Mile in Hazel Park. High speeds were common, even though the site's under construction following a recent fiery crash that destroyed the overpass there. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Thousands of Metro Detroit motorists driving through construction zones are reaching speeds on average of more than 20 mph above posted limits, endangering workers and themselves, according to a study by The Detroit News at three construction sites in the region.

One of the sites, at Interstate 75 and Nine Mile, is where crews are replacing a bridge destroyed in July in a collision when a speeding driver T-boned a gasoline tanker, causing it to explode.

Using a police-issue laser speed gun, the News found that southbound motorists on I-75 traveling through the work zone averaged 16 mph over the 45 mph and those in the northbound lane average 8 mph over the limit.The other findings include:

  • Eastbound motorists at I-696 and 11 Mile averaged 69 mph in a "45 mph when workers present" zone, while those traveling westbound averaged 71 mph.

  • At I-96 and Wixom, motorists averaged 63 mph in the eastbound lanes, in an area where the speed limit is 60 mph.

    Speeding in Michigan construction zones is a public safety issue, with two-dozen people dying each year on average since 2000 in the zones, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

    Grosse Pointe resident Aaron Whittaker has had his share of close calls in construction zones.

    "I had slowed down but the guy behind just kept on coming at a high rate of speed," Whittaker said.

    "Luckily I was watching in my mirrors and I could see that there was no way he was going to brake in time. I ended up having to suddenly pull off onto the left shoulder so he wouldn't ram me."

    In 2007, there were 5,341 crashes in road construction zones in Michigan, according to state statistics. Those crashes resulted in 19 deaths and 1,026 injuries.

    Workers say they are fearful, but state police say they don't have the money to keep troopers in construction zones. That's in stark contrast to neighboring Ohio, which has enough state police to assign some to construction sites all day long.

    At Nine Mile and I-75, Bob Jones, vice president of Toebe Construction, which is replacing the bridge, said he hasn't had any workers hurt due to speeding drivers, but they've come close.

    "When we first started this project we had half a dozen accidents, including 360s and people hitting the barricade walls and trucks. This is especially frustrating when you consider why we're replacing the bridge in the first place."

    According to Jones, two to three dozen workers toil at the site every day.

    All drivers who came through the zone during the survey broke the limit on I-75. About 164,000 vehicles travel there daily.

    The same was true at I-696 and most broke the speed limit on I-96.

    Speed readings were taken of 50 vehicles traveling in each direction between noon and 4 p.m. during the week. At I-75 and I-696, the speed limit is 45 mph and slightly higher at I-96.

    'Our numbers are down'

    Enforcing the speed limit in construction zones is becoming tougher, said Sgt. Lance Cook of the Michigan State Police traffic services section.

    "Due to this terrible economy, our numbers are down," Cook said, adding that the state police also don't have additional grants to tap from the Michigan Department of Transportation for extra patrols.

    "Now we're more reactive than proactive."

    The MSP currently has 1,000 troopers in the department, down from a high of 1,400 troopers in 2001.

    Sterling Heights resident Dennis Zitny said he's always on the lookout for speeding drivers.

    "You have to be aware at all times, checking your mirrors and looking around," Zitny said.

    "Everyone expects to drive 10 to 15 mph over the limit, but it's still a risk. I'm not too concerned about the person doing 70 in a 55; I'm worried about the guy doing 90 in a 55."

    Handling more than traffic

    In neighboring Ohio, highway patrol officials listed two distinct advantages over the Michigan State Police that allow them to patrol work zones more frequently.

    "We have about 1,500 troopers in our department," said Sgt. Richard Reeder, spokesman for the OHP.

    "And all we do is patrol the roads ... we can often assign a trooper to cover a construction zone for his entire shift."

    In Michigan, state police investigate homicides, sex crimes, illegal drug activity and arsons, as well as perform undercover work, surveillance, aviation and marine enforcement, and maintain a number of forensic divisions.

    Parking unmanned MSP cars in the work zones also isn't an option, Cook said.

    "It could be dangerous for the public, if they had an emergency and tried to contact a trooper in what turns out to be an unmanned car," he said.

    Promoting good driving

    The Michigan Department of Transportation has chaired the "Give Em a Brake" safety coalition program, which promotes slower driving in construction zones, said MDOT spokesman Bob Felt.

    "We're working very hard to educate the public on the concept of safety, which includes driving the posted speed, good driver behavior and to remind drivers that the men and women who work in construction zones also want to go home at the end of the day."

    MDOT also was instrumental in expanding "Andy's Law" -- named in honor of road worker Andy Lefko, who was left paralyzed after being struck by a motorists while working on I-275 in 1999 -- which originally imposed a penalty on anyone who kills or injures a road worker.

    The law used to just cover workers in construction zones, Felt said.

    "Now it says you can receive a $7,500 fine and 15 years in prison if you kill or injure anyone in a construction zone."

    The Give Em a Brake coalition represents a wide range of road building and safety groups, according to media consultant Stephen Serkaian, of Serkaian Communications Inc.

    Over the past 10 years funding for the coalition has ranged from as high as $150,000 to this year's budget of $58,000.

    Jonathan Atkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national safety coalition, said part of the problem is that the public feels it can drive 15 mph over the limit and not get caught.

    "We have to educate the public on why it's dangerous and to get effective countermeasures in place, such as red light and speed cameras," he said.

    "I know those are fighting words, but the cameras should only be used for safety, not as a revenue source."

    Currently, the use of red light and speed cameras is illegal in Michigan.

    tgreenwood@detnews.com">tgreenwood@detnews.com (313) 222-2023

  • A portable, police-issue LIDAR (Light Detecting And Radar) unit was used to determine drivers' speeds.
  • Readings were taken from overpasses either directly over the freeway or just off to the side.
  • Readings were limited to 50 vehicles traveling in one lane in each direction in three construction zones.
  • All the readings were taken on weekdays between the hours of noon and roughly 4 p.m.

  • Speedy excuses

    Sgt. Doug Topolski of the Dearborn Police Department said he's heard all the speeding excuses. Some of them include:

  • My speedometer is broken.
  • I was driving with the flow of traffic.
  • My car is acting up and I know it won't go that fast
  • I'm late for Bible study.
  • I'm on my way to the hospital.
  • I had to speed up to avoid another vehicle.
    Source: Detroit News research