Road workers face daily abuse

Steve Wootton - Traffic Management Forman. (D533C437)
Steve Wootton - Traffic Management Forman. (D533C437)

We’ve all been there. Stuck in horrendous motorway traffic jams as your holiday, visit to relatives or trip home from the footy is delayed by hours upon hours upon hours.

All you can do is drum fingers on the steering wheel, adjust the car heating accordingly, plead with the kids to be quiet and put the Fleetwood Mac CD on repeat until you can cope no more. All because of roadworks.

Eventually, when the traffic moves again and you’re on your way, the first people you’ll probably see are groups of men in high-vis jackets with helmets, spades, shovels and the like.

The more saintly among us will sigh contemptuously and vaguely about roadworks, councils and the Department of Transport.

For some drivers however, the anger is too much. Abuse - both verbal and physical - of road workers doing essential maintenance and repair work on motorways by frustrated drivers remains a huge problem.

In recent years, one extreme example saw a road worker hospitalised after he was shot by an airgun from a car window whilst doing his job.

Road worker Steve Wootton, 40, is all too aware of the confrontations that can occur.

“I’ve had threats of physical violence and lots of verbal abuse while I’ve been doing work although I’ve never actually been assaulted myself,” he says.

“It’s what you have to do on a daily basis so you just get on with it.”

While the aggression that some roadworkers experience is deeply unpleasant, it is far from being their most serious on-the-job concern.

The Highways Agency is launching a safety campaign to try and reduce the risks faced by roadworkers operating on busy motorways as vehicles hurtle past at 70 miles per hour.

It is certainly fair to say that the pressures and dangers of trying to carry out essential work while cars travel at speed in such close proximity are often taken for granted.

Between 2009 and 2013, eight workers were killed on or near motorways and major A roads in England.

More than 300 were injured over the same period.

Steve Barron, 39, was one such victim after a car smashed into the impact protection vehicle he was sitting in at 70mph in April 2013.

The driver had simply not concentrated on the road ahead and had ventured through the cones that highlighted the area where Steve and his colleagues were operating.

At the time Steve was working on the M180 eastbound, waiting for a gap in the cars so he could set up a traffic light system.

Seventeen months on, he is just completing physiotherapy for neck, jaw, lower back, knee and shoulder injuries he sustained in the accident. The driver himself was uninjured thanks to the quick reactions of his airbag.

“Apparently the guy was driving up from the south and coming towards the end of a long journey and he just wasn’t concentrating,” recalls Steve.

“In the end he told police that the first thing he saw was his airbag.

“I remember hearing an initial bang and then the siren on the vehicle going off.”

On the dangers that come with the territory of his profession, Steve says: “It’s something that you’re always switched on about, but my accident has brought it home a little bit more.”

Despite the shock, Steve considers himself lucky to have avoided serious permanent injury, and is grateful for the presence of the impact protection vehicle, which is designed to compress any contact between a speeding car and itself. Without it things would have been a lot worse”, he said.

Recent introductions of safety devices, such as the intellicone - a simple traffic cone wired up to an alarm system to alert workers of oncoming cars - have helped reduce some of the risks faced, although they do not eliminate them altogether.

Ultimately the fate of workmen on the roads with only a two and a half foot piece of orange plastic between themselves and speeding traffic rests with drivers.

Roger Wantling, who works as the service delivery team manager for Yorkshire and Humberside, said: “We just want to make things safer for everyone.

“I believe the vast majority of drivers are sensible and caring people, it’s just about educating those that aren’t aware of the risks these people face.

“We simply believe that everyone has the right to work in a safe environment, regardless of their job.”

And of course, anyone who works on the highways has to be prepared to operate in all kinds of weather. I

t’s a thought to ponder, next time you’re drumming your fingers and listening to Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow for the seventh time on the M62.