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Why police sometimes direct traffic during road construction in Pa. and N.J.

Why not just use flaggers at road construction zones? It's a safety issue. And motorists pay more attention to a police officer than a civilian employee.

Cherry Hill police officer Jeff Leber, right, at a  construction detail on Haddonfield-Berlin Road in Cherry Hill.
Cherry Hill police officer Jeff Leber, right, at a construction detail on Haddonfield-Berlin Road in Cherry Hill.Read moreTIM TAI

Despite flashing red and blue warning lights, carefully placed orange cones, and, when needed, strategically stationed workers to direct traffic around road construction zones, drivers too often crash through these work areas, sometimes injuring or killing workers.

That's why, officials say, they hire police who can cite drivers who fail to observe detours, speed reductions, and other safety restrictions imposed to protect construction workers. Despite that precaution, scores of workers are killed at road projects each year. Across the country, 609 lost their lives at construction sites between 2011 to 2015, according to federal Bureau of Labor statistics.

Those sobering numbers underscore the dangers of such work and why uniformed officers are hired instead of civilians wearing neon as they wave flags and direct traffic.

The flaggers must be adequately trained. So why not just use these civilian workers in construction zones? Readers in New Jersey raised that issue through Curious Philly, a question-and-response forum that allows readers to submit questions about their community

Officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey said police were there to ensure the safety of construction workers. Drivers are more likely to comply with the law when police are present. Although laws in both states require police at some sites, authorities can use flaggers on other projects, such as those with lower speed limits and less traffic.

It can cost more to hire police, though. Eventually, whether it is a local, county, or a state project, the costs are passed on to taxpayers. Private companies that perform road construction must include the cost of police and/or flaggers when bidding on the job.

"We won't always take the cheaper option, we'll always take the safer option," said Erin Patterson Gill, chief of staff for the Cherry Hill Mayor's Office.

Cherry Hill Police Chief William Monaghan said drivers too often disregard flaggers. Because police can issue tickets, motorists are more likely to pay attention, slow down, and follow detours.

"Sometimes, they'll even go around us," Monaghan said. In those situations, police can ticket drivers who try to bypass police and detours.

For Cherry Hill's $4 million road maintenance program in 2017-18, officials have so far paid police for 60 hours, at $80 an hour, for paving projects, costing $4,800 in addition to administrative fees and vehicle costs.

The extra cost is worth it, Gill said, as a form of prevention. Between 2011 and 2015, the latest figures available, there were more than 30,700 crashes at construction sites in New Jersey.

They can be deadly. In December 2017, a 62-year-old road worker the state hired to paint lines on a newly paved part of Route 1 in Edison was fatally struck by an SUV.

Across the country, nearly all states have passed legislation that require signs at construction sites where there are enhanced penalties for drivers who disregard restrictions. Utilities often hire police, as well, when traffic is disrupted at a site.

According to the Labor Bureau of Statistics, in New Jersey 14 workers were killed by motorists in construction zones between 2011 and 2015. Pennsylvania, identified by the bureau as one of the most dangerous states for roadwork crews, had 38 fatalities in the same time period. The statistics include vehicles driven by construction crews.

Several years ago in New Jersey, the state began a Work Zone Safety Program to create safe traffic flow around construction. The program included training troopers in worker safety compliance and work zone inspection.

In Pennsylvania, officials launched a safety campaign called "Go Orange" to raise awareness of the hazards and in response to the deaths of dozens of transportation workers at construction sites since 1970. The state has erected memorials to honor those employees. In October, Gov. Wolf signed legislation that will allow for automated speed enforcement using cameras in construction zones.

In 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spent $4.9 million to pay state police to provide protection and enforcement at 81 work zones, said Richard Kirkpatrick, a PennDot spokesman.

Police are used on highways with high volume of traffic. For less dangerous projects, Kirkpatrick said, PennDot hires flaggers, who earn between $15.28 and $18.31 an hour. By comparison, the starting salary for a state trooper is about $29 an hour.

In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the amount troopers are paid at construction projects is based on officers' rank, years of service, and whether they are working overtime. Neither state provided a range that troopers earn hourly at construction sites.

According to the New Jersey State Police, troopers were paid a total of $3.25 million for construction details in 2017. Asked repeatedly for more detailed information about the costs of projects and police salaries, the state Department of Transportation declined to provide answers or make anyone available for an interview.

In South Jersey, drivers have frequently passed police at construction work being done over the last year on two bridges in Cherry Hill. The $903,000 project included work for the Grove Street and Cuthbert Boulevard bridges. Police were paid about $69 an hour, working nearly 1,500 hours for a total cost of $103,000, said Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesman.

Although flaggers earn about $40 an hour, he said, the rate is closer to $70 an hour when benefits are included, not a huge difference to the current $80 an hour police earn, he said.

“The motoring public is more aware of police than they are flagmen,” Keashen said. Even then, he said, there are still accidents at construction sites when motorists speed or are distracted. “It’s a safety issue. Police are going to provide more protection to a construction crew.”