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Ty Johnson
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Caltrans Builds for Safety, Works to Keep Employees, Public Secure

Caltrans is concerned about the safety both of its employees who work on the state transportation network, as well as the traveling public who use the system for convenience, business and recreational travel. This year, the Department made that concern manifest through a number of strategies, ranging from research and innovation to public awareness campaigns and improved highways and rail systems across the state.

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Danger is inherent in many Caltrans jobs, and highway construction and maintenance are among the most dangerous occupations in the United States. One-hundred-seventy-eight (178) Caltrans employees have died on the job since 1924, when record keeping began.

The most recent fatality was Richard Gonzalez, a Caltrans Equipment Operator II, who was killed June 20 by a vehicle while he was working on a litter crew on I-15 in San Diego County. Mr. Gonzalez, 52, of San Ysidro, was the third work-related fatality in less than seven weeks.

In the wake of Mr. Gonzalez’s death, Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty called an immediate halt to all routine or regularly-scheduled maintenance activities that could be deferred so staff could participate in mandatory safety stand-down activities.

Other fatalities this year included Jaime Obeso, 53, a Maintenance Lead Worker in District 11, who was hit by an errant vehicle in June while working on I-8 near the Sunbeam Safety Roadside Rest Area in Imperial County. Mr. Obeso was a 22-year veteran of Caltrans.

Stephen Palmer, Sr., a 64-year-old Caltrans landscape maintenance worker in the San Diego area, died in May after being struck on the job by a trolley near a station in National City. Mr. Palmer, who began work for Caltrans in 2007, was a member of the Imperial Landscape Crew, based in San Diego.

photo at caltrans workers memorial of family membersAll three deaths had a particular poignancy given that their deaths followed closely after more than a thousand employees honored fallen Caltrans workers in April at the 21st Annual Workers Memorial at the State Capitol.

Also killed, in November 2010, was Maintenance Lead Worker Gary Smith from the Chico area. Mr. Smith was struck and killed by a motorist while performing traffic control for a detour around an earlier fatal crash. The errant driver was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence.

Workers aren’t the only ones at risk. Approximately 85 percent of people killed in highway work zones are drivers and passengers. Nationally, on average, more than two work zone fatalities occur every day or about once every 10 hours. In addition, on average, more than of 84 work zone injuries occur every day – one every 13 minutes.

The good news is that Caltrans has made strides through its Slow for the Cone Zone public awareness campaign launched in 1999. California work zone fatalities have declined 48.2 percent from 1999 to 2009, compared to a drop of just 21.9 percent nationally. SFCZ_logoCalifornia work zone fatalities, as a percentage of all California traffic fatalities, have been reduced to less than half what they were a decade ago, despite substantial increases in construction work zones. In 1999, 3.15 percent of all traffic fatalities in California were in work zones. The percentage has fallen steadily to 1.9 percent in 2009.

A similar regional effort is taking place in the San Diego area, where Caltrans District 11 has launched the Safe Driving on 76 Is No Accident public awareness campaign, which addressed the increase in traffic collisions along the mostly rural highway. During 2004, eight traffic collisions resulted in 16 deaths between I-5 and east of I-15.

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) has stepped up its enforcement and Caltrans has installed more and larger traffic signs along the route. Caltrans, the CHP, and the Oceanside Police Department have joined forces to educate drivers about safe driving practices along the highway.

As a result of such efforts in California and elsewhere, safety is also improving nationally. In 2009, there were 679 fatalities and more than 30,000 injuries in work zones across the nation. By comparison, during the previous three years there was a yearly average of 853 fatalities. Safety consciousness is making a difference.

Faced with such potential hazards, Caltrans is committed to ensuring that safety is designed and built into all its transportation facilities. Through March, Caltrans has advanced 42 safety projects worth $195 million to the ready-to-list milestone, and 55 projects worth $222 million were awarded through the same date.

The Department is also working to protect employees and drivers through the “Construction Code of Safe Practices” (COSP), published last August. The COSP is part of the Caltrans Accident Prevention and Safety Program and complies with requirements of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) construction safety orders.

The COSP defines standard safety practices for Caltrans staff and its consultants involved with inspecting construction activities and operations. To help field staff identify proper safety references, checklists for various construction operations were developed. Each checklist provides a list of the safety requirements related to a specific operation and the corresponding safety references, such as Standard Specifications, Standard Plans, Cal/OSHA Title 8 safety orders, and the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices.

This concern for public safety has manifested itself in a number of projects over the fiscal year.

safety roadside rest area

Most people don’t think of roadside rest stops as a strategy for safety. However, the facilities are officially called Safety Roadside Rest Areas (SRRAs), and Caltrans re-constructed nine SRRAs in partnership with the CHP and Department of Rehabilitation (DR). Each of the new SRRA's SRRA'sPlease click the link to learn more about the new Safety Roadside Rest Areas in the sidebar story., which in aggregate cover 75 percent of the state’s highway system, is designed to comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with other state standards.

The SRRAs make up an important safety component on the highway system. They provide areas where travelers can safely stop, rest, and manage travel needs. Integrated with such features as truck stops, commercial services, and vista points, the rest area system gives travelers the opportunity for a break when they need it most -- usually between large towns and at entrances to major metropolitan areas. The SRRA system serves more than 100 million visitors each year.

As part of the State Highway Operations and Protection Program (SHOPP), the SRRA rehabilitation effort aims to reduce highway facility life-cycle costs. To minimize the need for recurring maintenance activities, SRRAs are designed to withstand heavy use over many years.

Many other Caltrans projects were designed to make the state transportation network safer. For example, Caltrans completed the SR-12 Roadway Rehabilitation and Widening Project, as an answer to a troubled stretch of state highway in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region.

photo of SR 12The project’s safety improvements included standard-sized lanes and shoulders, and better sight distances on a two-lane road across rolling, rural terrain between Rio Vista and Suisun City. A median-rumble strip and channel grooves were added to reduce head-on collisions by alerting motorists from crossing to the opposite lane. The eight-foot standard shoulders provided areas for emergency vehicles, and the new road provided drivers with standard stopping distances.

Even the final paving strategy had an eye to safety. It occurred over a two-week daytime period instead of two months of night work, which saved time and money, accelerated delivery, and provided safety improvements on a corridor with a history of incidents.

In the Los Angeles area, Caltrans District 7 employed an innovative safety technique on the Sepulveda Boulevard on-ramp to the Century Freeway (I-105). The high-friction surface treatment surface treatmentPlease click the link to learn more about the new non-skid surface treatments in the sidebar story. is intended to keep drivers safe even in the rain.

The district, encompassing Los Angeles and Ventura counties, is also wrapping up a safety project on the venerable Pasadena Freeway (SR-110, or Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first freeway in the nation) from the Golden State Freeway (I-5) in Los Angeles to Glenarm Street in Pasadena. Begun in 2009, the project is replacing metal barriers and chain link fencing with concrete median and side barriers, and is adding new lighting.

photo of new wall treatment in District 7

In the Inland Empire, Caltrans District 8 is making motorists safer through the SR-86 (South)/Coachella Valley-Airport Boulevard Interchange Project, a $7.23 million project that spans SR-86. The highway carries heavy traffic, intersects Airport Boulevard at ground level, and has a history of violent and often fatal traffic collisions. The project replaces a ground-level intersection with one that carries Airport Boulevard traffic over SR-86.

The state highway once marked the eastern boundary of the Coachella Valley, but no longer. Growth on the eastern side of the expressway made this project necessary. Many growers in the area have equipment yards along the “old Highway 111,” which parallels SR-86, and the new interchange will help growers move through the area more safely and efficiently.

The 11-mile stretch of highway is the main traffic and goods movement corridor in the agricultural Coachella Valley and a major North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) route. The highway, which carries an average of 3,800 tractor-trailers a day, distributes crops regionally. The 18-month project began in April with completion scheduled for late 2012.

In the northern and more rural half of the state, Caltrans District 1 built an interchange at SR-36 and U.S. 101 near Fortuna. The Alton Interchange Project converted more than two miles of expressway to freeway by removing seven at-grade crossings and constructing frontage roads and an overcrossing. This project decreased the collision rate by making turns and merges easier for drivers to negotiate.

The Manzanita Chute project in northeast California has improved safety on SR-44 east of Redding near the entrance to Mount Lassen Park. It was initiated due to a concentration of 25 collisions and a crash rate that was 5 1/2 times higher than the statewide average for similar roadways. The “shovel ready” Recovery Act project widened shoulders and lanes, added a soft, four-foot median barrier, and a truck climbing lane.

In the Redding area, Caltrans District 2 also established a safety team that addressed strategies on transportation projects that had an above-average number of collisions. The results were significant. Between 1990 and 2008, the fatal collision rate for all highways in the district decreased by an average of 12 percent.

Caltrans is more than just highways, and its Division of Rail is helping protect the public while aboard or near the state’s intercity railroad system. Amtrak California — a service of Caltrans, Union Pacific, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), and Operation Lifesaver — is spreading the safety message. Between January and May 2010 alone, 35 Californians were killed at rail crossings. photo of Robin PotterAnother 86 Californians lost their lives in 2009, and there has been a 43 percent increase in pedestrian trespassing on California railroads from 2009 through May 2010.

To observe Railroad Safety Month in California, Robin Potter, whose son was killed while playing on railroad tracks near his home, shared her story at a press conference at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. The safety month was established to raise awareness about proper safety around California’s railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings.

Caltrans also has a vigorous research and innovation program that strives to protect employees and the public through better ideas for the transportation community.

For example, the Department developed a guardrail system that uses crumb rubber modifier concrete (CRMcrete) for weed control and to keep workers off the roadway. This system is durable, less expensive, and provides an environmentally friendly alternative for disposing of scrap tires.

Weeds growing beneath metal beam guardrails are unsightly and, more importantly, can lead to large brush or wild land fires and frequent maintenance. Caltrans currently uses asphalt concrete (AC) or Portland cement concrete (PCC) which is durable, but costly to install. The alternative, CRMcrete, is cheaper, and consists of scrap tire rubber that is added to PCC. Weed control efforts are reduced, leading to less worker exposure to speeding vehicles.

Another innovation is the Low-Profile Barrier. Many municipalities want to plant trees along state highways and in medians to create a more pleasant driving experience. However, the practice is prohibited due to the potential hazard of motorists colliding with trees near the travel way. Caltrans is developing a non-proprietary, permanent, low-maintenance, low-profile barrier that can be used in these low-speed highways, allowing for tree planting. The results benefit motorists both in safety and highway aesthetics.

The barrier is being tested according to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requirements. Once testing is completed and approved, the FHWA will list the barrier for use in California and throughout the nation. Deployment is expected in the summer of 2012.

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photo of Shandon rest area

The Shandon Safety Roadside Rest Area (SRRA), one of nine that Caltrans reconstructed this year, was a Recovery Act stimulus project that not only helps tired drivers but gives Mother Nature a “green” boost to keep California’s water a little cleaner. Construction was completed in February.

To obtain a waste discharge permit, Caltrans developed an advanced wastewater treatment system design that meets new regulatory standards, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria, and has a low operation and maintenance cost.

photo of septic tank installation

The rest area includes wastewater treatment, septic tanks, a re-circulation pump system, gravel filter, and a subsurface wetland designed to treat the water in an evironmentally safe manner. The treatment system was constructed and installed making use of passive processes to accomplish nitrogen removal. It can also be adapted to conditions found at any SRRA, maintenance station, or truck scales.

photo of specially designed leech field

The project is being monitored periodically to ensure compliance with Regional Water Quality Control Board requirements. Information obtained will be used to design future wastewater treatment systems (that have nitrogen limits). Preliminary information shows the system to be successful.