There are road works all around us – because it is that time of year. Summer and early autumn are the best times to seal and maintain roads because the warm temperature and dry air means the new seal sticks best to the road, making for a more durable long-term result.

This means, though, that heavy machinery, lots of workers, road cones, speed restrictions and driving interruptions are part of slower journeys at this time of year.

The tragic deaths of three road workers in the Bay of Plenty a couple of weeks ago, illustrates the dangers in this environment. Our road workers should not have to feel that they are going into an unsafe workplace when they head off for work.

We don't know the full story, but this tragedy suggests some distraction, some speeding, and not being mindful of the roading environment. Each of us drivers could be guilty of these at some stage.

Road sign warning of loose stones during chip seal roadworks. Photo/John Stone
Road sign warning of loose stones during chip seal roadworks. Photo/John Stone

Most road working sites are very well run. The contractor develops specific plans and the site traffic management supervisor manages them. We have orange and black signs, cones, people in hard hats and high-vis vests and multiple pieces of large and small machinery.

You just can't miss an active road works site especially where there is new road sealing involved. It is pretty obvious how you should drive through the site.

The prescribed speed limit is 30km/h. It pays to keep at least two car lengths from the vehicle in front. Going too fast scatters the road chips potentially damaging other cars, your own paintwork and the road workers. If you go too slow you risk sinking into the road surface bringing up bitumen and chips to the underside of your car and heavy braking will just damage the new seal.

Everyone working on the site is there to do a job, to ensure that section of road is brought up to scratch and to get normal traffic movement resumed as soon as possible.

Some of the big frustrations for drivers are what happens when the road workers have gone. It may be several days before the road can be swept and painted. The orange and black warning signs remain but it is not completely clear what your driving speed should be.

Drivers can get cynical about lazy contractors unnecessarily restricting speed, but the signs are prescribed to be there as a warning about the condition of the road.

The road code isn't specific about speeds around certain road conditions, but if you see an orange and black sign anywhere on the road it's a warning. So, a golden rule is: "Even if you can't see any sign of construction, if you see orange and black - then hold back".

If there are posted temporary speed limits around road works, then that is the limit until you see the whole road speed limit at the end of the works. You can lose your licence if caught at 40km/h over the temporary speed limit.


We do have a need though to promote a better understanding about speed around the different stages of road repair. A general rule in the industry is that the temporary speed limits should be: "30km/h, while workers are present; 50km/h on freshly sealed roads which are unswept and unmarked; 70km/h, once swept but unmarked and 100km/h for the open road once painting is complete."

We are confronted with a lot of different road warning signs. We need a better understanding about what these road warning signs mean and for us as drivers to behave appropriately. Orange and black - hold back.

■ John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.