|A work truck, far left, passes the KDOT paint crew convoy near Pratt.|
Public Affairs Manager
South Central Kansas
Kansas highways are striped with paint: yellow lines to guide motorists and to aid in preventing collisions, white lines to mark the road’s edge.
It takes skill and coordinated teamwork to put those lines down safely and neatly, with reflective paint that drivers can see in different conditions. As one Kansas Department of Transportation paint crew supervisor says of the work, “It’s a big dance.”
Here’s a look at how and why those lines get methodically painted, from a recent ride in the Pratt area with the KDOT District Five road-striping crew based in Hutchinson:
|This KDOT paint crew truck has an attenuator on the back. The attenuator is a safety device designed to absorb impact. It’s like a gigantic rear bumper.|
Insight No. 1: Safety is a priority partly because the paint truck leading the slow-moving convoy of three crew trucks rolls only at about 8 mph when spraying the paint.
To help prevent faster-moving motorists from colliding with each other or with the KDOT trucks, the District Five crew positions three trucks so they work in concert and help shield one another.
A truck in the rear, driven by Christy DeSantis, Equipment Operator Trainee, carries a rear-facing digital display alerting traffic to the paint crew ahead. The rear truck also bears an impact-absorbing assembly called an attenuator. It’s essentially a gigantic rear bumper.
A few years ago, a semi going a highway speed crashed into an attenuator on a KDOT truck on U.S. 50 near Kinsley. The attenuator absorbed so much impact that everyone escaped serious injury, said Chris Craig, District Five Paint Crew Supervisor.
A second, middle truck also carries a rear-facing alert message and another attenuator. “I’ve had close calls where the truck’s almost been hit” from behind, said Allen Palmatier Sr., Equipment Operator Senior and driver of the middle truck.
The two rear trucks help protect the paint crew in the third, lead truck. All three trucks have flashing lights so other motorists can see them.
The idea is to allow vehicles to safely pass the paint convoy. The KDOT drivers keep enough distance between their trucks to allow a passing vehicle to pull in if needed -- but not so much distance as to encourage a line of cars to pull in between the trucks. Sometimes, the KDOT convoy pulls over if traffic becomes too congested.
Through radio headsets, the drivers of the three trucks alert each other to passing and approaching vehicles, whose drivers sometimes illegally pass on both sides, in no-passing zones and on right shoulders.
|A sample of the reflective glass beads that are embedded in road stripe paint so traffic lines can be seen by motorists in different conditions.|
Insight No. 2.: To be seen by motorists at night or in bad weather, the painted lines are designed to reflect back to motorists. So when the yellow or white paint gets sprayed down, it is embedded with tiny glass beads that are also applied by the truck. The beads give the paint its reflective quality, so it is visible at night and in bad weather.
Onboard-bead containers carry up to 36,000 pounds of beads.
The crew checks to make sure it’s sending out the right concentration of beads.
Palmatier periodically stops and gets out to measure the newly sprayed lines to make sure they are the correct width.
In one previous close call, while outside one of the trucks near Larned, Palmatier said, he had to leap into a ditch to escape. A semi going too fast stopped just inches from the back of his truck’s attenuator.
Insight No. 3: The striping work takes skill and coordination.
Chris Blume, one of the painters, sits in a glass-encased booth on the back of the paint truck. They call the booth “the doghouse.” From a chair on the right side, he peers down and from the side – on the white-line side -- and uses a steering wheel and other visual aids to put new paint and beads down over existing faded lines. The paint shoots and beads drop from carriages extending from both sides of the truck. It takes a practiced skill to be able start and stop the paint at the right instant, in the right configuration: double lines, single lines, curving lines, lines with gaps in between.
Using both hands, Blume flips switches on a control board to operate different paint guns. A black hose from a paint tank in front of the “doghouse” pulses with hydraulic pressure.
By headset, Blume communicates with Craig, the crew supervisor, known by the crew as “Corky.” Craig has been on a paint crew for 17 years. He monitors a screen to make sure he is driving the paint truck on a course to put the paint down right in line.
From the driver’s seat, Craig keeps Blume informed of the configuration of upcoming lines, so Blume will know how and when to apply the paint. Before the paint shoots out, “dusters” mounted on the truck blow away debris so the new paint will adhere. The new paint is noticeably brighter and more reflective.
The communication and coordination required is why Craig calls the work “the big dance.”
Insight No. 4: Sometimes, motorists mess up the fresh paint, and that can create more work for KDOT.
Normally, it takes about 10 minutes for the paint to dry enough for it not to be tracked by cars rolling over it. It takes hours more for it to cure.
Motorists can avoid getting fresh paint on their cars by watching out for paint crews or by avoiding passing.
During one pass over the highway, someone on the crew blurted out over the radio, “Screwing up our paint. … Thank you, buddy!” as a passing semi tracked through fresh paint.
“If they tear it up too much, we go back and redo it,” Craig said. Sometimes, KDOT will have to shut down a lane to grind off the mess. It’s not just about cleaning things up. Tires passing over fresh paint can remove the beads, and they have to be reapplied.
|KDOT’s Allen Palmatier Sr. periodically checks to make sure the new painted lines are the correct width.|
Insight No. 5: The painting goes on for months and sometimes at night, from around late April often into November and December. The paint can’t be applied if it’s wet, too cold or too windy.
Because of heavy traffic volume on certain highways in Newton or Wichita, the crew works at night. They use lights to illuminate their work.
“It’s like a Christmas tree at night,” Craig said.