'Tis the season for road trips. Unfortunately, it's also the season for highway construction and maintenance for much of the country. With $31 billion spent nationwide on highway maintenance in recent years (according to the Federal Highway Administration)—you're likely to run into construction somewhere along the route. Slowdowns due to fender-benders are often sudden and unavoidable, but construction zones are almost always planned and announced in advance: Find out about them and don't be surprised when you see a wall of brake lights ahead.
Dodging construction slowdowns:
Plan ahead and know where the construction is. Most states have Web sites and telephone hotlines for construction information, and for the most part, they're updated frequently. Among these, the Federal HighwayAdministration and Rand McNally are good sources for construction information. If you're an AAA member, the group's Trip Tiks include current construction information.
Avoid traveling during the peak times. In most places, peak weekend travel times are between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays. Some of the construction information includes the times that particular lanes are blocked off. Beware that some construction projects open up additional lanes for the evening rush hour and then block them off again after 8 p.m., causing a secondary congestion problem for through traffic.
Heed the advance warnings. On holiday weekends or during the summer travel season, miles ahead of work zones, crews will sometimes position electronic message-board signs with alerts on how to avoid upcoming construction backups. Watch for these, and use the advice for alternate routes. They might seem to take you out of the way, but they're probably going to save time in the end.
Driving into construction zones:
Merge early! We know it's a hotly contested question: Do you merge miles in advance when the warning signs first appear, or do you take advantage of the other lane until you absolutely need to merge? The tempting answer to this is that it pays to use all available lanes of traffic as long as possible, but not so long that you're dangerously cutting in. Unfortunately, not all drivers are polite and attentive. Some drivers try to barrel into spaces that don't exist just as the cones are forcing them to, while other drivers militantly and aggressively try to block motorists who use the other lane from merging in. Both behaviors are equally dangerous and an invitation for road rage—and you don't necessarily get through it any faster! Think about it for a moment: The number of cars that can get through a single-lane construction zone is limited by that single lane. Do more cars get through the construction zone if more people hold out to merge until the last moment? The answer is no. Some might say that the act of "racing to the squeeze point" speeds up traffic entering the work zone, but that's just unsafe and irresponsible. The best policy is to safely merge at least a quarter mile before the lanes merge, to allow for people who aren't paying attention and help prevent accidents at the merge point.
Slow down to save lives. Here it's more important than ever, because you'll likely be driving inches away from defenseless workers who could possibly misstep into the path of your vehicle. Also, look out for loose gravel, tools, or raw materials in the highway. Beware that in most states, fines and penalties are doubled in construction zones.
Don't follow too closely. People tend to want to follow more closely in construction zones, but that won't really get you there any faster either. In a construction zone, you should leave extra space—at least four seconds to get to where the car in front of you was.
Minimize your distractions. Most likely, traffic will be slowed, speeds won't be steady, lanes might be unusually narrow, and there might not be a shoulder to escape to if you can't brake in time for the vehicle ahead. In other words, there's no time for distractions. Before you enter the construction area, take care of the sound system (something soothing works well if you're the hotheaded type), turn off your cell phone, and put down the Big Gulp. Now's the time to give the kids that extra something that keeps them especially occupied.
Some suggestions if you do get stuck and aggravated in slow traffic:
Stop driving for a few hours. Exit the highway and have a light meal, but don't go overboard because it might make you drowsy, and NEVER have a drink if you stop for a break!
Take the scenic route. What better time to take one of the old 'blue highways,' roll down the windows, and enjoy small-town America? It might even take you longer than inching through the construction zone on the Interstate, but you'll feel less bored, cranky, and stressed—and isn't that part of the reason you took a vacation in the first place?
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