Construction zones in Florida's roadways are dangerous. Workers want drivers to stay vigilant
Every day before the sun rises, John Farnoly of Volusia County kisses his wife goodbye, gets in his pickup truck and drives to a staging area along Interstate 4, near L.B. McLeod Road in Orlando. Farnoly, 35, is a project manager for ongoing maintenance along that stretch of the interstate. Every day, he hopes he won’t get struck and be maimed or killed like one of the 2,550 casualties among construction workers on I-4 since 2015.
“It’s scary, you always have to have your head on a swivel,” Farnoly said. “Once you step out of that truck you have cars traveling at the speed limit anywhere from 65 to 75, 85 miles per hour,’’ Farnoly said.
An eye on the traffic
According to the Florida Department of Transportation in 2017-2021 statewide, Florida experienced more than 53,000 work-zone related crashes, including more than 356 fatalities, and more than 1,904 severe injuries.
Farnoly and his team provide landscaping and maintenance to signs and lighting on a 20-mile stretch of the interstate, from mile markers 95 to 78, both eastbound and westbound. The team, clad in orange vests and hard hats, have to maintain constant vigilance, doing their work while also being aware of thousands of cars whizzing by them.
Farnoly said he has to slowly walk backward sometimes, with an eye on oncoming traffic, just in case an errant vehicle comes through and he has to be able to quickly jump out of the way in case some driver who is texting instead of keeping their eyes on the road comes barreling through the work zone.
“Constantly staying vigilant of the work zones and the work that is going on,” Farnoly said. "I-4 is constantly having work done, and we are constantly maintaining projects.”
Farnoly has been with his company Roy Jorgensen Associates Inc. since 2014. The firm has contracts with another maintenance company and Florida's DOT. Before moving to Florida, his prior experience in this industry was in Virginia and he spent three years at an engineering firm doing highway design and traffic studies.
Typically, the company will close a shoulder or a lane to shift the traffic over. But if a driver is not paying attention, they will come right into the work zone, Farnoly said.
“The amount of traffic that I-4 sees daily requires a lot of maintenance so we could see the work that we are doing is providing safe and major impacts,” Farnoly said.
“Every employee at Jorgensen goes through a traffic management course in which they learn how to set up a proper work zone for an accident based on the FDOT standards,” Farnoly said, adding that most of his co-workers at the site have five to 10 years of experience.
Loreen Bobo leads the office of safety at the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 5 office, working to reduce fatalities on the roadways. The goal is zero. As drivers on the roadway, there’s a lot of responsibility, anytime you're driving, but especially when you come upon a work zone, Bobo said.
“Many of the crashes that we see are drivers that are impaired,’’ Bobo said. “So, they're either driving under the influence or maybe they even fell asleep. Driving drowsy is just as bad as driving under the influence.”
Bobo said drivers have a lot of responsibility, and that increases when they enter a work zone.
“That work zone is signaling to you that there are people, humans working very close to the roadway, and we really ask people to pay attention to those markings,’’ Bobo said. It could be cones, barrels, signage, lights, drawing the driver's attention that something has changed on the highway, she added.
“Those workers are somebody's family, they're somebody's mom, somebody's dad, somebody's brother or sister, and having worked in construction for 18 years, it's scary being on the side of the road, all it takes is an errant driver and someone's not going home that night,” Bobo said.
This story is part of the "Sounds of Central Florida" project, a partnership between WMFE and UCF's Nicholson School of Communication and Media.