“National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is an annual spring campaign held at the start of construction season to encourage safe driving through highway work zones.” This year, NWZAW will be held next week – April 11-15 – and will be hosted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Although the Federal Highway Administration, American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and each of the state departments of transportation want drivers to use extra caution in work zones 24/7/365, NWZAW shines a particularly bright spotlight on work zone safety.
How NWZAW came about
In 1997, several VDOT staff members in southwestern Virginia sought to dedicate a week to raise awareness about work zone safety among all district employees prior to the start of construction projects (which generally are undertaken during the warmer months in the spring, summer and fall).
The statewide event in Virginia was successful; VDOT representatives then contacted other state DOTs about the idea of raising awareness of work zone safety. In 1998 VDOT then presented the idea to create a national campaign to ATSSA officials.
ATSSA approached the FHWA and AASHTO in December 1999 to launch the first official NWZAW. The organizations developed an agreement that outlined the goals of NWZAW, which included:
- Initiate efforts to raise awareness of the need for more caution when driving through work zones to decrease fatalities and injuries
- Establish and promote a uniform set of safety tips
- The value of training and importance of best practices in regard to work zone safety would be promoted among individuals in the private sector, industry and roadway workers
- Reach out to both roadway workers and contractors to communicate possible effects of motorists’ behavior in response to traffic delays, and advise on what steps might possibly be taken to lessen negative behavior
- Outreach efforts would be made to work with entities involved with work zone safety and to form partnerships
The first NWZAW was held in April 2000. It occurred about four months after the agreement to create such a week was jointly signed by Kenneth R. Wykle, FHWA administrator; Thomas R. Warne, president of AASHTO (and executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation); and Roger Wentz, ATSSA president and chief executive officer.
At the time the agreement was signed, Warne stated, “Safety is a top concern to AASHTO’s member departments, and far too many fatalities and injuries occur in work zones each year. AASHTO is dedicated to this effort to inform the public of the problem and to educate drivers on how to get through work zones in order to ensure their safety and that of the highway workers.”
NWZAW history since 2000
Among the states formally observing NWZAW during its first year was Pennsylvania. One of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) methods to observe NWZAW and to emphasize the need for increased safety in highway construction zones was “a family-oriented warning sign for work zones that read ‘Slow Down – My Daddy Works Here.’ The black-and-orange sign featured those words in the handwriting of a child.”
That theme was reinforced by PennDOT Safety Press Officer Deborah Schreckengost. “It is everyone’s responsibility to recognize and obey the signs in a work zone and to stay alert so as to be able to react to the constantly changing conditions of a construction zone.”
Messages for the first NWZAW were similar to what Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner C.M. Wilhelm had said more than 50 years earlier. In a June 1949 article in the Altoona Mirror newspaper, Wilhelm was quoted about the need for drivers to be vigilant when driving through work zones. “Drivers who speed through these areas, or attempt to pass other cars, create a hazard which might cause death or injury. They must drive carefully at all times in order to protect the lives of the men doing work vital to the welfare of the public.”
NWZAW kick-off events
The first national kick-off ceremony for NWZAW took place in Springfield, Virginia. It was intentionally held near an Interstate 95 work zone. The venue for NWZAW’s national kick-off in 2001 was the National Mall in Washington, D.C. At that event there was a somber display of 868 traffic cones; each cone was draped with a black ribbon and represented an individual killed in a work zone accident during 1999.
On April 9, 2019 the NWZAW national kick-off event took place in a work zone for the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which was being built to span the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. Construction on the bridge, which is a replacement for the original bridge that was nearly 70 years old, began in 2018.
The 2019 event featured the National Work Zone Memorial, which is a mobile memorial that was created for the ATSSA in 2002. The memorial has “wall panels that bear the names of people who have died in work zone crashes.”
Among the public officials who spoke at the 2019 event were Brandye Hendrickson, the FHWA’s deputy administrator (now AASHTO’s deputy director), and Jeff Marootian, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation at that time (and now special assistant to President Biden). “As the weather gets warmer, highway workers are heading outdoors to improve our roads and keep us moving,” Hendrickson stated. “We all need to do our part and drive carefully, so that we can help keep everyone safe wherever construction is underway.”
The location of NWZAW kick-off events now alternate annually between the Washington, D.C., area and different locations around the United States.