Road Construction Work Zones

Harry Clark, ABATE of New York Safety Officer

(July, 2005 ABATE of New York Newsletter Article) My view on safety is that it involves the rider, other motorists' behavior, and the road itself. We've made some progress on that last item recently, with some revised policy that is being placed into effect for New York State Department of Transportation road projects. This new policy is being implemented by something called Engineering Instructions, which are taking effect now. One is called "Motorcycle Safety Measures on Milled Pavements - Revised Specifications," and the other "Motorcycle Safety Measures on Milled Pavements - Design Guidance." You can view these documents here: and here:

I am a Construction Engineer with the NYS Department of Transportation. Our local DOT safety officer asked me to comment on a proposed policy change that dealt with milled pavement. I told her that milled pavement is a hazard to motorcyclists, but that there was more to it than that. I pointed out that while milled pavement can be tricky for a biker, especially when the milling is coarse and the grooves wander side to side, there is an even more hazardous condition, when for example one lane is milled but the lane next to it is not. This leaves a vertical face which we bikers call an "edge trap." I told her that for a motorcycle to remain stable while moving, the front wheel must always be free to move to either side. These side motions are very small, but if a front tire gets trapped in one of these "edge trap" situations, the bike almost always goes down.

The new policy being put into place calls for the increased usage of warning signs to help warn motorcyclists of road construction hazards. More good news is that finally the State of New York has come to the realization that routinely creating edge trap situations on our highways in work zones is hazardous to motorcyclists, and needs to be minimized.

I've been asked to help explain what the new EI's mean. In the EI's, "MUTCD" means "Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices." The signs to be used will refer to milled pavement as "GROOVED PAVEMENT." Most milling machines produce a coarsely milled surface that have longitudinal grooves, and these grooves are what will give you the most trouble while riding. What these EI's do is point out to road project designers the need to provide for appropriate construction signs and to advise construction engineers and contractors to look out for the needs of motorcyclists, and provides advice on how to do that.

The people up in Albany who write the specifications and make the rules tend to be unaware of motorcyclists' concerns for the simple reason that most of them are not motorcyclists. But this time I was asked for input, and as an experienced motorcyclist I was able to provide relevant advice. Others helped, too. A DOT guy in Region 8 worked on this and I believe he was also an ABATE member.

You can help by reporting hazards on road construction projects. Report any shortcomings you see to the Regional Director of the Region you find the problem in: DOT wants to help out, so keep it cool, and help them help us.

Any discussion of motorcycle safety in construction work zones must also include how we ride. You should already know about "edge traps," be on the lookout for them, and if you must for example move from one lane to another where a vertical face exists due to paving or milling, slow down and try to traverse the edge trap at as high an angle as possible. Regarding milled pavement, the grooves can be a hassle to deal with. Try to stay cool, don't grab the handlebars too tightly, and just ride it out. Watch for edge traps, and also be aware that most freshly milled pavement also has loose sand on it. Also watch out for manholes and utility boxes, which will be sticking up above the milled pavement.

Whether you are on your bike, or driving your car or truck, please be alert in work zones. Read the signs. If a lane is being closed ahead, aggressively read the signs to figure out which lane, well enough in advance that you can move over early and merge smoothly and safely with other traffic.

There was a terrible wreck on I-81 in the Binghamton area just a week ago. Three construction workers were killed. The incident started with a bus traveling way too fast. He struck a motorcyclist, then a truck, then intruded into a work zone and crashed into the back of a cement mixer where 3 road workers were killed. The bus driver was in critical condition after the wreck.

The motorcyclist got rear-ended by the bus, launched off his bike at over 50 mph, and wound up waking up next to a traffic cone. His only injuries were a mild concussion and some bruises, thanks to good riding gear and some good luck. How good is your riding gear and how would you fare in a wreck like that? That's your decision to make.

This accident, while tragic and extreme, illustrates what happens all too often in work zones. It only takes one driver not paying attention to set up a nasty chain reaction wreck where other innocent people suffer tragic consequences. You really need to read the signs, and get your act together early in a work zone. Your task in a work zone is to be actively preventing the accidents that others' poor driving are setting up. Also, as that motorcyclist's experience helps illustrate, the typical accident in a work zone is a rear-end type collision. Don't tailgate, and don't allow others to tailgate you.

Things are getting bad in work zones with speeding drivers, tailgaters, people who don't read signs, drivers on cell phones paying no attention that the death rate continues to climb. Being a road worker has become a hazardous occupation. Keep in mind that more motorists die in work zone accidents than road workers. Despite all the hard work done by engineers and contractors, road construction work zones are high accident locations, and you need to be aware of that while driving or riding through one.

The State of New York has responded by doubling fines for speeding in work zones, and routinely having State Troopers present on the bigger road jobs. You should slow down to look out for the safety of others and yourself. If you don't, then expect to fork over big bucks for a traffic ticket and higher insurance premiums.

The State of New York is doing something to make road construction safer for motorcyclists in the way of new policy. You also need to do everything you can to make yourself a safer, more observant rider, especially in highway work zones.

Ride safe. ~ Harry Clark, ABATE of New York Safety Officer