As if the sight alone of orange barrels isn't enough to raise the blood pressure of construction-weary drivers, likely price increases for the traffic safety devices are giving some Michigan taxpayers sticker shock, too.
The state could become the 18th in the U.S. to require microprismatic sheeting of white and fluorescent orange bands on the plastic drums. Brighter and more visible, especially at dusk and dawn and during inclement weather, when about a third of all Michigan work zone fatalities and injuries occur, the sheeting is more expensive, too. The cost for a construction barrel would go up from a range of $51 to $85 each to $73 to $122 each.
The price hike of $22 to $27 per barrel isn't going over well with online commentators who read about it in the Detroit Free Press. Reporter Paul Egan's story, “State eyes double-digit jump in price of orange barrels,” got 38 comments in two days and all but one — the new barrels cost more because they are better — questioned the cost, the need and the motive to require the sheeting.
“This is nuts,” one reader remarked. “The road surface itself is yuck and yet this is the proposal to spend money on something that is for the benefit of the manufacturer more than anybody else?”
Michiganders come by their penny-pinching, prioritizing ways very honestly. Detroit just went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. And things aren't all rosy at the state level. Michigan officials say $1.2 billion more a year for the next 10 years is needed to repair and maintain neglected and crumbling roads and bridges.
In the meantime, conditions are going from bad to worse. Last month a massive 2-foot by 3-foot pothole tore open a lane — and two dozen or so car tires — on a busy Interstate 75 bridge outside of downtown Detroit. Drivers worry about traveling the stretch of highway and some get really anxious when they're stuck on the bridge 103 feet above the Rouge River during a traffic jam.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has the bridge deck scheduled for replacement in 2017. If the legislature ever figures out how to fund all the work that's needed, Michigan is going to put out droves of construction barrels so no wonder residents are reflecting on the sheeting hailed for its retroreflectivity.
“If drivers can not see the current colored barrels they should not have a driver's license,” one online Free Press reader said.
“Buy some reflective tape and tape the existing barrels,” suggested another.
Suspicions were raised, too, with comments like, “I'd like to know who in MDOT has a relative in the supply base for these barrels.”
“Looks to me that the current barrels work very well. [Anyone] care to show proof they do not?” asked another.
Traffic engineers say the proof is in the work zone crash statistics, which in 2013 ranged from zero to a handful in 19 states but were as high as 51 in California, 69 in Florida and 104 in Texas, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. In Michigan, eight people were killed in 2013.
MDOT says a total of 37,339 accidents occurred in Michigan work zones from 2010-2014. In the four-year period, there were 107 fatalities and 6,881 serious injuries. Of those crash victims, 52 were killed and 2,239 were seriously hurt in work zone crashes that happened during low-light conditions — periods when the fluorescent orange stripes on construction barrels might have made a life-or-death difference.
Studies show fluorescent traffic devices can be seen from a greater distance and give drivers going 40 mph an additional 2.5 seconds of decision time.
“Reaction time is a factor directly related to work zone safety. Increasing the motorist's awareness and reaction time approaching a work zone should increase the safety of workers and the travelling public within the work zone,” Chris Brookes, an MDOT work zone engineer, said in an email.
He also points to the “comprehensive cost” of one roadway fatality cited by the Michigan State Police and the National Safety Council. The council calculates the cost in terms of dollars spent and income not received for fatal crashes. Things like medical expenses, lost wages and productivity, vehicle damage, and administrative expenses are factored into the calculation. So are travel delays for other motorists and employers' training costs for replacement workers. That all adds up to an economic cost per death of $1.4 million.
Then, the council includes “a measure of the value of lost quality of life,” which it obtained through empirical studies, for a comprehensive cost of $4.5 million for each death caused by a car crash.
Brookes said if just one of the 52 people killed during low-light conditions in a Michigan work zone had the additional sight distance to avoid a crash or slow down enough to survive it, the increased cost of the new construction barrels would be worth it.
“Not only would the state have made a wise investment but there would be one more Michigan citizen alive to go home to his or her family,” he said.