Highway construction workers obey their own set of commandments, laws for on-the-job survival that should be carved in concrete at every job site: Always watch the traffic. Set up your barriers and warning signs properly. Monitor highway conditions meticulously. Wear reflective gear. Keep an eye on your co-workers.
But no precautions could have saved Robert Schiffler. On Sept. 28, the 54-year-old highway worker was working on a Fairfax offramp of I-66 West. At about 1:30 a.m., Schiffler had just finished a routine task of roadwork—measuring the width of theofframp—when a 1987 Acura Legend plowed into him at more than 90 miles per hour. The car’s hood smashed into Schiffler, and his head slammed through the passenger side of the windshield, splattering blood on the face of the driver, Manassas resident Edward Hakspiel, 27. Stunned by the collision, Hakspiel swerved back and forth across the ramp, traveling approximately 1000 feet before dumping Schiffler’s lifeless body unceremoniously onto the pavement. Schiffler’s co-worker heard the collision and ran to help. But he turned back when he saw Schiffler’s leg, severed by the collision, lying on the side of the road, according to highway officials.
According to court testimony last week, Hakspiel committed virtually every misdeed you can with an automobile. He was drunk; he was driving with a suspended license—the result of two prior drunken-driving offenses—and he sped up after a Virginia state trooper chased him for driving 73 mph in a 55-mph zone. And Hakspiel did the unforgivable: After the trooper began his pursuit, Hakspiel turned off his lights, making his car all-but-invisible to Schiffler. Hakspiel faces up to 20 years in jail and lifetime revocation of his driver’s license.
Such accidents are growing depressingly familiar to the metro area’s highway workers. Drivers may whine about construction traffic jams and yell at the highway workers who slow them to a crawl, but road crews have a lot more reason to complain about drivers than drivers have to complain about road crews.
Thanks largely to careless drivers, road construction—especially night work—is a harrowing and dangerous job. Although Schiffler is the first Virginia highway worker to die on the job this year, according to statistics complied by the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), work-zone accidents claimed a record 833 lives across the country in 1994, up more than 10 percent from 1993. In addition, ATSSA estimates that more than 37,000 injuries occur annually in highway work zones, accounting for most of the $3-billion toll that work-zone accidents take on the national economy. Caroline Carver, an ATSSA spokeswoman, says that the proliferation of highway renovation projects explains much of the alarming increase in work-zone accidents, but she stresses that that is only a partial explanation. “The public must take some responsibility for the problem. It’s a very dangerous job,” she says.
No one knows those dangers better than the workers themselves. It’s 10:30 p.m., and crew foreman Joe Pagan is standing in a closed-down lane of I-66 East. Cars are zooming by the floodlit site—most traveling well over the 55-mph limit. Pagan, who’s 27, is bitching about drivers: drunken drivers, hurried drivers, woozy tractor-trailer drivers, and just-plain-stupid drivers.
“People don’t pay attention to workers out on the road, I’ll tell you that right now,” Pagan huffs, motioning to the zone cordoned off by the reflective orange-and-white barrels that his crew have just lined up. Sometimes, he says, clueless drivers break through the barrel line. “When one car comes in, 20 people follow him. So you’ve got 20 people in the roadway coming at you,” adds Pagan.
As Pagan lights up a cigarette and continues his harangue against motorists, his half-dozen workers mill about the supply trucks and noise makers: an air compressor, a concrete-cutting saw, and generators hooked up to light racks. (Of course, this is a highway construction site, and at any given moment at least a couple of crew members are standing with their hands in their pockets, chatting.) All the equipment is running at full tilt, creating a din that completely muffles the passing traffic. The workers shout to one another and, when possible, use hand gestures to communicate. Many wear earplugs.
They are cutting an inch-wide channel in the highway’s concrete. The groove will hold an optical cable that will deliver data on I-66 traffic flow to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) traffic nerve center in Arlington. Should the cable’s sensors indicate congestion, the system will post warnings advising travelers to take alternate routes or to expect delays. VDOT calls it an “intelligent highway” system.
But “intelligent” is the last word the construction workers would use to describe this highway—or at least the drivers on it. “Look out,” Pagan cries above the roar of the machines, pointing to a car closing in on the work zone from within the line of barrels. The car is moving fast, and nothing separates it from a handful of workers gathering cable to be embedded in the highway. The workers freeze and then scurry toward a supply truck. The car rushes toward them. When it reaches the illuminated work zone, it lights up the cherries on its roof, and the crew relaxes. “It’s just a trooper,” proclaims Pierre Dixon, a crewman with eight years of highway construction experience.
Dixon sets out the barrels that buffer the work zone from interstate traffic. His colleagues agree that Dixon’s work is the most dangerous, and a quick chat with him reveals why. Twice in the past year, he says, cars have slammed into the back of his truck. In the more recent accident, the car was speeding along at 85 mph, and its passengers owed their survival to air bags, according to Dixon. “This is dangerous work, man,” he sighs. So why does he continue doing it? “Believe me, if something comes along and I can get out of this, I’ll take it,” he pledges.
Virginia highway construction workers earn an average annual salary of $25,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Don’t even try asking them if that’s fair compensation. “Hell no,” thunders Pagan, pulling a butt from his mouth. “Not for the risk that’s out here.”
The crew’s labor appears as tedious as it is risky. Pagan’s crew will toil on its current project for at least two more years, installing thousands of cables before it finishes. Already the workers’ tasks—closing lanes, cutting grooves, laying cable—have become rote. This leaves a minimum of managerial work for Pagan, who passes the time smoking cigarettes and occasionally barking instructions to subordinates.
Pagan observes as the saw operator approaches the barrel line. The operator must cut perilously close to this line, about a yard or two shy of oncoming traffic. If he falls short of the line, he must compensate later, when the crew changes the lane closure and traffic moves to where he now stands. The cut is a job for three crew members: a spotter, who ignores the path of the saw and focuses only on the traffic; a saw operator, who guides the saw; and a flare-holder, who stands at the barrel line with a flare in his outstretched arm to give his partners some breathing room.
The strategy seems to work well, as the herd of passing traffic bows slightly away from the flare, yielding a comfort zone alongside the work site. But in every herd is a rogue, and just as the saw closes in on the barrel line, a white pickup barrels past, moving much faster than the rest of the traffic and within a whisker of the workers. (A 1994 study by John Deere found that most drivers don’t even slow down in work zones.) The spotter shakes his head slightly at the close call. The saw operator doesn’t even notice it. The flare-holder follows the truck with a look of contempt. This is the highway workers’ lot: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.