Caltrans Aims to Cut Peril for Freeway Crews

Times Staff Writer

The next time you feel like cursing a team of Caltrans workers for closing off a freeway lane, think of Thomas Ritter.

He was bending over to turn the water back on after fixing a sprinkler head in the landscaping along Angeles Crest Highway when the world went black. A speeding driver on his way home from a methadone clinic slammed into him at 75 mph -- and then kept going.

Ritter's chest and pelvis were crushed, and his lungs were in such bad shape that he got pneumonia and almost died. A passing motorist pulled over the driver who hit him, snatching the man's keys at a traffic signal.

Kelly Martinez tells a similar story. On Dec. 3, 2000 (Martinez says he will always remember the date), he was teaching a new Caltrans employee how to put out a sign announcing the closure of a freeway ramp. Martinez had just motioned for the colleague to walk ahead of him when he heard an explosion. A driver in a minivan had slammed into the workers' truck and the truck hit Martinez, knocking him out. He was off work for six months and bears a scar on his neck where doctors had to build a new disc in his spinal column.

The year Ritter was hit -- 1999 -- there were 6,436 collisions in highway work zones in California, according to the state Department of Transportation. The next year, when Martinez was injured, there were 5,359. All told, 158 Caltrans workers have died in accidents on the state's highways since the agency started counting in 1924.

Some are caused by the same types of drivers who normally cause accidents -- drunks, or people who are distracted by their cell phones, their makeup or a one-handed meal. But others are caused by normally good drivers who just don't realize quickly enough what's going on -- and how dangerous the freeway is for workers.

It's not just workers who are getting hurt in construction zones. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 1,000 people were killed and 37,000 injured in construction-zone accidents in 2001 -- 85% of them drivers and their passengers.

It is precisely to avoid such accidents that Caltrans workers block off fairly long portions of the freeway around work sites. If there is no shoulder, maintenance crews close a lane even if they will be working up on the landscaped freeway bank.

Last week, the agency kicked off a publicity campaign urging motorists to be cautious in work zones. This is the third such campaign in as many years, and Caltrans credits the outreach efforts with reducing injuries among its workers by 24% since 1999.

On a recent sunny day, John Torres, a 21-year veteran of the department, piloted a huge white truck down the right lane of the southbound Santa Ana Freeway just east of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles.

While workers up ahead leapt out of their trucks to set up roadwork signs, Torres picked up two red flares from a plastic box next to his seat. He eyed traffic out of his open window and, as soon as there was a break, he rubbed the flares together, lighting one and filling the truck with a smell like a child's cap gun. He tossed the lighted flare out the window and, driving slowly forward, waited for another opening.

At the head of the little caravan, workers laid out orange caution cones from a perch behind the cab of another truck.

This day, the three-truck crew would be repairing the big sand-filled barrels meant to keep errant motorists from slamming into each other at the onramp and offramp at Beswick and Calzona streets. There are so many collisions there, said Caltrans official Michael Miles, that the barrels must be replaced or repaired three times a week.

Even though the work is taking place off the freeway itself, Caltrans has closed off the Concord Street ramp and this one, which is known as the Indiana Street ramp despite its location at Beswick and Calzona, and closed off the right-hand lane.

The flares and signs start 3,000 feet before the lane closure, giving a motorist driving 60 mph about 34 seconds to move over and slow down, said Nate Cradle, who manages the downtown maintenance yard where the team is based.

But no matter how well the closure is marked, some people will still try to wend their way through the trucks and barriers. "You can have cones up and signs, but if this is the only way they know to go home, they're going home," he said.

There is no automatic reduction of the speed limit in a work zone, although Caltrans can set such a limit if necessary, and traffic fines are doubled in maintenance or construction areas.

For its part, Caltrans offers a number of safety tips. It suggests that drivers use extra caution, obey speed limits and watch for workers. Motorists also should avoid lane changes, keep their headlights on and refrain from using cell phones. There should be ample space between cars, and drivers must be prepared to merge or shift to a new lane when directed to do so.

Barring emergency repairs, most lane closures and other freeway work is announced ahead of time on Caltrans' Web site at www.dot.ca.gov/dist07/laneclosures.

To check a specific blockage, including how long a lane or road will be closed, motorists statewide can call (800) 427-7623.

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