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New Law Aims to Protect TxDOT Road Workers

Texas drivers will have to slow down or move over one lane when passing Texas Department of Transportation workers under a new law. This story is part of our monthlong 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

TxDOT employees Brad Shepard and Canaan Johnson finish up after putting asphalt cold mix down for edge repairs on Interstate 35-S near Parmer Lane on Monday August 19th, 2013.

Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.

In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry signed the Move Over Act. It gave Texas drivers a new rule of the road when they come across a police car or other emergency vehicle parked on a shoulder with its lights flashing: Slow down or move one lane over while passing.

Missing from the original law's list of protected groups was transportation workers, even though the state reports hundreds of motor vehicle deaths in construction or maintenance zones every year, many of them involving road workers. That changes on Sept. 1, when a bill lawmakers passed in the spring adds Texas Department of Transportation vehicles to the list of those that require drivers to slow down or move over. 

“This will ultimately create a safer highway system for motorists and workers,” Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican, said earlier this year while promoting his bill, Senate Bill 510.

The new law will only apply when a TxDOT vehicle is working on or near a roadway with emergency lights flashing, and is not protected from motorists via drums, barricades, vertical panels, guardrails or cable barriers, TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said. 

"This is temporary maintenance that doesn't require a construction zone," Beyer said. "What drivers really need to look for is the blue lights and the white truck on the side of the road and the temporary cones." 

Over the last 15 years, most states have enacted “move over” laws to reduce traffic fatalities involving emergency workers. Only a handful of states have expanded the law to include highway maintenance vehicles.

This is the second expansion of the Move Over Act in Texas. An earlier expansion added tow trucks to the list of vehicles covered under the law.

Drivers approaching a vehicle covered under the law are required to either vacate the lane closest to that vehicle or reduce their speed to at least 20 mph below the posted speed limit. If the speed limit is already 25 mph or below, drivers must reduce their speed to 5 mph. The punishment for violating the law is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $200. The penalty can increase if violating the law leads to property damage or bodily injury.

TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said that the state’s road workers put their lives at risk and deserve the same protections from oncoming traffic.

“We have men and women who, on a regular basis, stop to remove debris from a roadway, to take care of an emergency situation, to assist stranded motorists and do other things on our highways, to handle other hazards,” Barton said while testifying for the bill at a Senate hearing earlier this year.

TxDOT records show 13 of the agency’s workers died while working on state roadways in the last two decades. Nine were operating in the kind of unofficial work zones that would be covered under the new law, Beyer said.

But maintaining the state's roads is more dangerous than TxDOT’s worker fatality figures suggest. The agency does not collect data on accidents related to roadwork done by private companies.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 110 motor vehicle fatalities in “construction/maintenance zones” in Texas in 2011, 19 percent of 587 such deaths in the federal agency’s national database for that year.

Those figures are a decrease from 2000, when the American Traffic Safety Services Foundation started its first National Work Zone Awareness Week campaign, according to spokesman James Baron. That year, the agency reported 1,026 motor vehicle fatalities in such zones, with 155 of them in Texas.

“The community awareness of work zones is now a lot better than it was 10 years ago,” Baron said.

In recent years, TxDOT has increasingly relied on outsourcing to cut costs. Privately hired road workers are not addressed in the new law, though drivers passing by them may end up slowing down or changing lanes anyway, unaware that the workers do not work directly for TxDOT. 

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