When youíre hard at work, itís not unusual for your concentration to become so focused that you block out everything thatís going on around you. For most of us, thatís a beneficial skill to have, especially if your job places you in a noisy or distracting environment.

But itís not so good if youíre a highway construction or maintenance worker.

Work zones have always been dangerous places, and despite new developments in engineering and design, they may always be that way. It doesnít help that construction zones are generally considered to be nuisances by drivers in a hurry ó and rarely do you see drivers who are not in a hurry. And when you do see them, they become the objects of contempt and perhaps a signal of disgust from others.

Things probably will not get better any time soon. To meet the demands of future motorists, highway construction and maintenance levels are increasing. And because of traffic volumes, itís almost impossible to close highways while work is under way. Workers wind up doing their jobs with highway traffic breezing by just a few feet away.

More than 20,000 accidents occur annually in highway work zones, injuring more than 5,000 people and ó in 2005 ó killing 872 people in the United States, according to statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Texas, unfortunately, was ranked among the top three with 154 fatalities. Florida was first with 162, and California was second with 155.

If there is any good news, itís that this is down from previous record years. For example, 1,181 construction zone-related fatalities occurred in 2002. That was a year in which Texas led the nation in deaths with 192, followed by California and Georgia with 119 and 118, respectively.

Separate events Tuesday morning reminded me of the dangers people working near streets and highways encounter. The first came on Coggin Avenue, where I was taking photographs of City of Brownwood crews installing a flexible lane barrier marking a right-turn-only lane onto Shaw Drive. The speed limit there is 40 mph, but even that seems much faster when vehicles are passing by only a few inches away. And I had to keep reminding myself of where I was and where I didnít need to be, even if it meant getting a slightly better camera angle.

When I returned to the office, word of the fatal accident near Winchell earlier that day had been received, along with news of the Brady man who was struck by a passing vehicle when he stopped to render aid. Road construction and accident rescue are not the same jobs, but those who are involved face many of the same dangers.

It made me appreciate even more the state law requiring motorists to pull over one lane or slow down 20 mph when passing a stopped emergency vehicle.

The American Road Transportation Builders Association offered these tips to enhance safety within work zones:

Stay alert. Dedicate your full attention to the roadway. Pay close attention. Signs and work zone flaggers save lives. Donít tailgate. Donít speed. Note the posted speed limits in and around the work zone. Minimize distractions. Avoid changing radio stations and using mobile phones while driving in work zones. Expect the unexpected. Keep an eye out for workers and their equipment. Be patient. Remember that work zone crew members are working to improve your future ride.

The extra time needed to get through a construction zone, or an accident scene, may make you late getting to your destination. But the people working on the side of the road want to be able to go home at the end of their work day, too.

Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.deason@brownwoodbulletin.com.