As engineers, we like to think that we are doing some service to society by getting involved in lawsuits and helping to sort out engineering truth from engineering fiction. We also like to think that, somewhere, somehow, for some reason, somebody is paying attention to our expert opinions and changing the way they do business to correct design, construction or operational flaws. Then again, the lawsuit may settle without anyone learning from the mistakes.
That’s why I think it’s a good idea for engineering expert witnesses to “complete the loop” when possible and inform those in authority when negligence is observed. Having worked on about 100 highway-related expert witness assignments since the early 90’s, many of which have involved work zones, I have encountered a few “patterns of activity” that compromise safety. To address this issue, here are some procedural and educational changes I recommended to the head of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT):
1.) Intersection Sight Distance – I’ve encountered numerous accidents where parked construction vehicles, vegetation or construction materials have caused unsignalized intersections sight distance to be compromised, resulting in serious right-angle crashes. I don’t think sight distance is being checked by construction inspectors and I don’t see much said about it in any of the FDOT standards, including the work zone training courses FDOT and ATSSA are giving. I think it should be added to the training materials and the standards should be upgraded as well.
2.) Barrier Wall Ends. – The FDOT Standard Index calls for barrels to be placed so that they meet the entry end of the barrier wall at its tangent point, thus providing a buffer area between traffic and the angled portion of the wall. I’ve had a couple of cases where the barrels were incorrectly set to meet the barrier wall at its starting point, not at the tangent point, and the inspector didn’t catch the mistake. Adding a discussion of this common problem to inspector and work zone training materials would be good.
3.) Dump Trucks – Something needs to be done about private contractor construction dump trucks and gravel trucks entering high speed roadways with no rotating beacon and no reflectorized rear dump gate. I’ve worked on two cases where people have rear-ended dump trucks and died. These dark trucks only have very small taillights and they are often difficult to see at night. It’s hard for me to understand why FDOT dump trucks are bright yellow and have rotating beacons or flashing LED’s while these private trucks have nothing. You’re just as dead if you hit a private dump truck.
4.) Accident Reports – I have one very disturbing case where right-angle accidents were occurring after-hours at an unsignalized intersection within a work zone and the associated accident reports were not making it back to the inspector or contractor so that remedial action could be taken. Someone eventually died at the intersection. It seems to me that, whenever an accident occurs within a work zone, there should be a procedure whereby a copy of the accident report completed by the police is promptly provided to the inspector or contractor. As it stands now, the people involved in the road construction often never know that an after-hours accident occurred.
Somewhat to my surprise, these suggestions ended up being relatively well received by FDOT. I would encourage other experts to make their voice heard when they see a negative safety pattern in their practice.
Expert 319207 is a Professional Engineer and consultant with over 30 years of hands-on technical experience in the field of traffic engineering. He is a recognized national expert in traffic signal operation, timing, design, and construction, and proficient in pavement marking design, roadway signing, and work one traffic control.