Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Night Work: Traffic

Two in the morning is when it really begins. Screw that midnight spiel. At two in the morning the human brain begins to do things it normally doesn’t do, and if you’ve already been given an abnormal brain, that doesn’t mean you become more like everyone else. Of course, if you’re out with a bunch of people who keep the same hours you do become the same species of zombie, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale, does it?
Intellectually speaking, two in the morning is no man’s land. You no more want someone at two in the morning making decisions that will affect your life than you want someone taking double shots of cheap bourbon to drive you home in the rain. All the human senses become deadened to the present reality and begin to slip into something else. Familiar sounds and sights suddenly become just a wee bit alien. Artificial light, especially when there is a surfeit of it, blinds rather than illuminates. The human eye needs natural light, and natural shadow to register reality. The white hot blinding work lights cast deep dark shadows that create a two dimension world of blindness and blindness.
Assume nothing in traffic. There is a huge slow moving milling machine spewing out a steady stream of crushed asphalt. If the operator moves the conveyor belt too far to the left or right a human being should not be where that stuff is landing. Stay away from it at all costs. Move quickly out of the area if you have to move through it. The truck being loaded by the milling machine back up by watching a man guide them back. They may not see someone standing there, and they may drive poorly. There are two machines with huge cylinders lined with bristles to sweep up the excess. The create clouds of dust as they travel. Their operators may not be able to see. There is a front end loader helping clean up in the dust, he may be likewise blind. There are three pick-up trucks the managers use. There is a truck with a trailer behind it the traffic control guy uses. Not all of these are moving at once but all of these will move at one point in time or another and some of them move together. We’ve also got in a lane closure. The traveling public is asked to do something new at two. Someone once told me, “Mike, the good news is only one person in a thousand is going to do something stupid enough to get you killed. The bad news is if there are five thousand cars a day, you never know which five are going to try to murder you.”
The idea of people driving their cars with their brains acting like mine is enough to keep me awake at night. So far, however, things have worked really well and I’m very happy about it. The traffic control guy doesn’t have any sort of sense of humor. When I speak to him he holds his breath. He was the traffic control guy on their last project where a drunk ran off the road and killed someone. The drunk didn’t realize he had hit a person. The man was that drunk. This event haunts the men of this crew, and it’s more than just a little spooky.
If you are going to work in, or around, traffic then you are going to eventually see people torn apart or dead. You can either live with this or you cannot live with this. You do everything humanly possible to prevent it, you plan as well as you can plan, you put out as much traffic control as you think you can, you cover as many of the spaces as you can, you do everything right, everything by the contract, everything by the plans, and everything anyone around you can think of doing to make it a safer world, and some drunk will still kill someone one day.

Or one night.

In seventeen and a half years I’ve never had anyone killed on a project. I do mostly bridgework, and they’re safer when it comes to traffic, but by and large, none of this has anything to do with luck. You have to stay on top of everything all the time, even when there are other things going on, you have to stop and periscope up, take a step back, and ask yourself what the people traveling down the road will see as they are coming towards you. Can they see you? Do they understand where they’re supposed to be? What’s out there to confuse them? Deep breath. Ride through and check everything at least once an hour. Move barrels that have been pushed over, check the lights, check the workers, talk to the cop that has been hired to stay out there with us. Make sure he’s connected with the people on the crew.

My brain gets weird on me. It’s an odd feeling this, a sort of a disconnect from reality. I check spacing on traffic panels and count the number of moving vehicles. I follow traffic through the project a few times, to see when people are swerving away from the work, to see how many of them know what’s going on, to understand what they see, not what I see, and because I need their brains to tell mine what they are feeling when they drive by.

Two weeks into the project we’ve had no accidents, no weirdness, no near misses, no one has done anything wrong. But each night is a brand new day. Each car is a new test. Each car is a person, with kids, with drinks, with distractions, with no sleep, with divorces, with war, with insanity, with blindness, with old age, with hurry, with hurry, with hurry, and without. You can either live with this or you cannot work in traffic. You leave it on the road when you head home, and you hope it doesn’t follow you.
It sometimes does.

Take Care,


  1. Hi Mike never us to take care, You be careful out there

  2. Sorry should be: never mind us!

  3. I'm out there for you, Jet. I'm out there to make sure everyone gets home okay, all the moms, and dads, and kids, and everyone going anywhere.

  4. Nice writing, I saw you'd dropped by and read about DodderyOld Fart's demise, then left a one word comment...

    There you are.another thinking man, working on the highway. Another proof of something I keep arguing.
    I read a blog recently that made some negative comment about people who dig sewers, I think the point was that if you were stupid, you'd end up doing something like that, rather than a proper job, shuffling paper, making nothing, and getting six-figure bonuses.
    Now in my world, where last week, I was doing just that, digging a sewer, I've learned that on any work crew, there may be a few grunts, but there'll usually be one or two deep thinkers. The fork lift driver might just be able to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the lepidoptera of Borneo.
    Just because a man is wearing a hard-hat and steel toed boots, nobody should assume he has no brain.
    Just as, if a man is wearing an expensively cut suit and carrying a hand-stitched pigskin briefcase, nobody should assume his thoughts ever stray above the humdrum.

  5. I drive a motorcycle. I always hate the one lane, "hold on, here we're coming, the Follow Me"vehicle. I take long trips during the spring and summer and wonder why these crews don't work in the off-tourist season. Then I realize that off season for tourists is also off-season for the road crew. Stay safe, if this is what you're still doing. Better yet, stay safe anyway.

    1. Yeah, I am still in traffic but I am back on a bridge right now. Less traffic on bridge work.

      You on a bike? I did not see that coming. Are there photos of this?

  6. Yes. 2007 HD Heritage Softtail Classic. I don't know how to upload photos on blogs, though.

    1. send it email mike.firesmith at