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If there aren’t any workers in a highway construction zone, do you still have to slow down and go the posted speed? It doesn’t make sense to go slow if nobody’s actually there. – Marc, Ottawa

There’s no asterisk on that speed limit sign in a construction zone; it’s the speed limit all the time, even if nobody’s working.

“The speed limit is what is posted on the sign,” Staff Sergeant Carolle Dionne, Ontario Provincial Police spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “What changes is that when construction workers are present, the fines double.”

For instance, if you’re caught going 15 kilometres an hour over the limit through a construction zone in Ontario when no workers are there, it’s a $37.50 fine ($2.50 for each km over), before extra charges. If there are workers, it’s a $75 fine ($5/kilometre).

The rates go up the faster you’re going. So, if you’re caught going 40 km/h over the limit when crews are working, it’s a $480 fine ($12/kilometre). With no crews, it’s $240 ($6/kilometre).

So why do you need to slow down if nobody’s working? It’s for your safety too, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said.

“Reduced-speed-limit signs in construction zones are posted when road conditions require a reduction in speed for the safety of workers and drivers,” MTO spokesman Bob Nichols said in an e-mail.

There are plenty of hazards in construction zones: the lanes might be more narrow than usual, there could be gravel or potholes, the pavement might drop off and there could be heavy equipment near the travel lanes.

The specific rules vary by province, but generally, if there’s a speed-limit sign in a construction zone, you have to follow it, whether crews are there or not.

“It’s an indication that the road isn’t in perfect shape and can’t handle that speed,” said Sergeant Lorne Lecker, with RCMP’s Deas Island traffic services in Surrey, B.C. “A lot of people aren’t aware that you still have to slow down [if nobody’s there] and they try to bring it up in court as a defence.”

And some provinces hike speeding fines in construction zones even when workers aren’t there. For instance, in B.C., fines increase in construction zones – for going less than 21 km/h over the limit in a construction zone, it’s a $196 fine, $58 more than the usual $138 fine – even if nobody’s working.

Covering signs when workers go home

In January, Alberta started requiring construction crews to cover up the construction zone speed limit signs when they leave for the day, as long as the roads are safe for normal speeds.

“When no workers are present and there are no safety concerns, the normal posted speed limit will apply and speeding fines will not be doubled,” Alberta’s Department of Transportation said in an e-mail statement.

If contractors don’t cover the signs, they could face a $500 to $25,000 fine.

“If there are no safety hazards, lane closures and speed reductions often don’t make sense,” Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason said at a news conference announcing the change. “In fact, they can lead to problems with traffic congestion or being tailgated when you’re obeying the speed limit, but the driver behind you is pushing for you to speed up.”

The move could help clear up confusion and make more drivers take construction zone speed limits seriously.

“By covering the signage when workers aren’t present, it’s a clear visual cue to motorists that it’s okay to drive normally,” said Lewis Smith, manager, national projects with the Canada Safety Council. “And, when [a sign is] uncovered, it becomes more noticeable and is seen as a legitimate sign, rather than visual clutter.”

We asked the MTO whether it’s considering a similar rule for Ontario.

“Changes in Alberta are very recent,” Nichols said. “The ministry will monitor the situation and analyze any data related to the new measures as it becomes available.”