AZLE, Texas — Albertine Washington’s daily drive to work in the small town of Azle has turned into a jarring irritation now that her commute suddenly got speed bumps.
“I didn’t like it,” she said. “It’s rough; it’s loud; it can be real irritating.”
A few weeks ago, workers with the Texas Department of Transportation laid down “rumble strips” on a two-lane highway ahead of a construction project to extend the shoulders. The project is among the first of what the agency warns will be many more to employ the noisy strips.
“In the future, it's very likely you'll see products like this,” said Val Lopez, a spokesperson for the agency.
Over the past few months, the state has been spending $4.3 million to buy more than 3,700 rumble strips. Drivers passing over the rubber pads feel a bounce and hear a noise. By design, they resemble mini-speed bumps and are designed to slow motorists approaching work zones.
“TxDOT staff saw these devices being demonstrated at a national conference and believed that they could be used to improve safety in work zones,” wrote agency spokeswoman Veronica Beyer in an e-mail to KVUE's sister station WFAA. “Texas is taking the lead in the use of these types of devices."
In November, the agency directed its districts to begin using the strips by this month. Drivers are just now beginning to notice them on some highways.
“This product slows them down, gets their attention, and makes them aware they are approaching a work zone,” Lopez said. “Our number one concern is safety.”
Texas has more accidents in work zones than any other state — 17,000 last year, which killed 134 people.
Most of the fatalities are drivers, not highway workers. Yet the number of people killed in Texas work zones has been dropping over the years, and is down from nearly 200 deaths from 10 years ago, according to Gerald Ullman, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
“The trend both in Texas and nationally has been a decrease in work-zone crashes,” Ullman wrote in an e-mail to WFAA. “Driver inattention and failure to control speed or driving too fast for conditions are consistently the factors identified as primary contributors to work zone crashes.”
TxDOT maintains one accident is too many, and worries drivers are ignoring warning signs.
“Ultimately, any accident in a work zone is one too many,” Lopez said. “We're trying to use this product in a way that increases everyone’s safety.”
The strips are only being used ahead of construction zones where lanes are closed. For now, TxDOT is trying them out on rural highways before deciding whether to use them on crowded urban interstates.
This month, the agency used the strips on Interstate 35 near Waco, which sees up to 115,000 cars every day.
“We are experimenting with their use on higher-speed interstates in the Waco area,” Beyer said.
The rumble strips are no more than an inch high and fit together like puzzle pieces. Each section weighs 35 pounds and is held in place by only its weight. Crews can easily drag them into position.
Already, though, the strips are provoking grumbles from drivers, who feel like they’re a distracting intrusion that could cause unintended consequences.
“They’re going to make people swerve to miss them, and cause more wrecks out here,” Washington said.
She said she often sees drivers swerve around them and, occasionally, stop.
“I just saw one stop out there a few minutes ago and back the traffic up,” she said. “He didn't swerve; he stopped.”
Not to mention, she worries, the noise coming from the strips (with the not-so-comforting name, RoadQuake).
“I can hear them as we speak,” she said from her porch several hundred feet away. “I hear them every time a car passes... I don’t think it’s a good idea.”