Weather Watch

Workers on Central Coast roadways face dangers from distracted drivers

A Caltrans crew filling in cracks along Highway 101.
A Caltrans crew filling in cracks along Highway 101.

Life on an aircraft carrier can be perilous. Just before flight operations, these massive nuclear-powered ships increase their speed to put 30 to 35 mph headwinds across the flight deck to provide additional aerodynamic lift for their aircraft.

During flight ops, not only is the ship moving forward into the wind, but in rough seas, the ship also moves from side to side (sway), up and down (heave), and back to front (surge) in the ocean’s swell. Overall, it’s the right recipe for seasickness, as the fluid in your inner ear moves in directions that are different from what your eyes see.

When I was in the Navy, I flew in an SH-3 Sea King helicopter. Before we got off the deck, a preflight inspection of the aircraft was required. The helicopters were typically parked near the carrier’s island on the flight deck, not more than a few feet from the “foul line,” or the edge of the aircraft landing area.

As our crew inspected the Sea King, numerous aircraft, mostly F/A-18 Hornets, would land in quick succession with a thunderous crash as their jet engines went to full throttle the moment their tailhook snagged one of the arresting wires stretched across the deck. In just two seconds, these aircraft would come to a standstill from their approach speed of over 150 mph.

As you felt the heat from the jets’ exhaust and smelled their kerosene fumes, you quickly came to the realization that this was a dangerous place. Indeed, a place where you keep your head on a swivel. In other words, you would gain situational awareness by looking in every direction at every moment, like an owl.

Unfortunately, Caltrans employees, CHP, sheriff’s deputies and police, EMS and firefighters, PG&E utility crews and tow truck operators who work along our roads and freeways face the same dangers from cars and trucks speeding past them at arm’s length.

Unlike the Navy and Marine pilots who are highly trained professionals in the prime of life, free of alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals, and not texting or reading emails on their smartphones, these dedicated highway workers have no idea who hurriedly passes them and what they may be doing.

To make matters worse, rain after a dry period releases oil, grease and rubber dust that has accumulated on roadways, creating slippery conditions, while fog can reduce visibility to less than a few yards. In fact, driving too fast is the No. 1 cause of traffic accidents on wet days.

To put these hazards in sharp focus, since 1921, 184 Caltrans employees have been killed on the job, including eight in District 5, which serves Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

So please, “Slow for the Cone Zone.” One of the biggest hazards for workers is motorists who do not exercise caution while driving through highway work zones.

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If you would like to participate in a “Weather Watchers” tour of Diablo Canyon Power Plant and lands, which will include atmospheric and oceanographic instrumentation used for weather forecasting and other interesting weather information, please email me at to register.

The tour will be offered Wednesday, May 25. The tour will start at 9 a.m. at the PG&E Energy Education Center, 6588 Ontario Road in San Luis Obispo and will finish by noon.

John Lindsey is the PG&E Diablo Canyon meteorologist and media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.