Michigan road worker deaths rise in 2020 as families grapple with ‘devastation’ left in their wake
More road workers killed in 2020 than 2019 while traffic volumes were lower
By Marie Weidmayer | firstname.lastname@example.org
Dolores and Nick Male watched as their youngest son, Joaquin, played with his yo-yo on Christmas morning. The child, 7 at the time, wanted to show the new toy to his oldest brother, as the family stood at his gravesite.
“That’s devastation,” father Nick Male said.
Nicholas Andres Sada, Joaquin’s brother, was killed Nov. 7 by a suspected drunk driver while he worked in a construction zone on I-94 near Ypsilanti.
Sada’s friend and crewmate, Davyon Desmond-Aurelius Rose, was also killed.
“They had so much to look forward to and their whole lives ahead of them,” Sada’s stepmom, Dolores Male, said. “It was all taken from them in a matter of seconds.”
The Male family is not alone. Sada and Rose, who were both 23, are two of the five workers killed on Michigan’s roads in 2020.
While their families continue to mourn, a spike in worker deaths last year has sparked concern for workers on Michigan roads as another summer construction season begins.
The five workers who were killed in 2020 represents a sharp increase from two deaths in 2019, according to Michigan Department of Transportation data. Even more troubling, that increase in fatalities occurred as MDOT reported a significant decrease in traffic volume amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To see that jump three extra deaths in a year is very tragic,” MDOT spokesperson Courtney Bates said. “What this tells us with traffic volumes being down … we just really need people to pay attention to speeds in the work zone. Those signs are there for a reason. When it says 55, we need you to drive 55.”
Zach Morisette with Macomb County Department of Roads, Jeremy Zeitz with Anlaan Corporation and Allen Craig with Dan’s Excavating all were fatally injured while working on a road in 2020.
Another road worker, Brandyn Spychalski, died in Jan. 24, 2020, after he was hit by a flatbed truck in a construction zone June 29, 2017. His mom, Leslie Fonzi-Lynch, hates driving through work zones now.
“I get very panicked because all I think about is my son,” she said. “I’m the one that will hold you up in the construction. I slow way down prior to the sign. As soon as you see the sign, I’m the one that slows down. The cars are whipping around me. Before, I’d wait until I physically entered it.”
The increase in road worker deaths in 2020 came while there was between a 20% and 60% decrease in traffic on the roads because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Department of Transportation said. The increase in worker deaths is alarming, said MDOT spokesperson Bates.
Fatalities ‘entirely avoidable’
“This demonstrates that road worker deaths are not some natural byproduct of traffic, but are the entirely avoidable result of individual drivers demonstrating disregard for the lives of workers by speeding, driving while impaired or otherwise breaking the law,” said Geno Alessandrini, business manager for Michigan Laborers District Council, in an email.
The council represents seven local unions for road workers across the state.
When drivers see orange cones and works zones, their focus needs to be solely on safe driving, Bates said. That means no cell phone use, no eating and watching for brake lights.
Cars and trucks passing through work zones are driving by real, live people who want to go home to their families, said Dan McKernan, communications director for Operating Engineers 324.
“They’re already working inches away from people driving by, even at the posted speeds – of 45 mph in many cases – that’s still very fast,” McKernan said.
Preliminary numbers for 2020 show that, with much lower traffic volumes, Michigan had around 4,900 work zone crashes in 2020, compared to 5,808 in 2019, MDOT said.
There were also around 1,000 injury crashes in work zones, per preliminary numbers, compared to 1,083 injury crashes in 2019, MDOT said.
In 2020, preliminary numbers show 15 people overall, including workers, died in work zones crashes, compared to 17 in 2019.
Road worker Brooks Hollemans knows what it’s like to be hit while working in a construction zone. He was nearly killed by a driver on I-196 in Grand Rapids on May 24, 2005, but survived. He spent three weeks in a coma, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Now, almost 16 years later, he still takes medication daily to prevent seizures. He said he has been seizure-free since 2007, and was able to get his commercial truck driver’s license back in 2009. He’s back driving trucks for the Kent County Road Commission.
“It was just determination,” Hollemans said. “That’s all I can say. I look back at my time at Mary Free Bed (Rehabilitation) after coming out of the coma. I was definitely a different person. I had a long way to go in recovery. … When I came out of that coma, I was not going to be told things were different. I was not going to be told that my life was going to change at all. I was bound and determined, ‘I will be back driving truck. I will be 100% as I was before.’
“That’s not entirely true. I’m never going to be 100%.”
Fonzi-Lynch is thankful for the extra time she had with her son, because she knows other families did not have that time. But, watching her son suffer and be in pain was not easy.
“It all stems from one person, one person not doing his part and not paying attention and putting other people’s lives in danger,” she said.
She was there through Spychalski’s 30 surgeries, 281 days in the hospital, countless bedside procedures and multiple follow-up hospital says.
“He was a fighter,” Fonzi-Lynch said. “He fought every day to make himself better.”
Spychalski was pinned between a work truck and a flatbed truck with a car on it, Fonzi-Lynch said. The driver wasn’t paying attention and swerved at the last minute to avoid hitting a car that was braking, she said.
She assumed the driver would receive a similar punishment to the one communicated by work zones signs that say, “Injure/Kill a worker $7,500 + 15 years.” But, the driver was sentenced before Spychalski’s death and received a few weekends in jail and had to pay fines equivalent to court costs, Fonzi-Lynch said.
“(Spychalski’s) only fault was to get up and go to work that day,” she said. “He never thought – none of them think – this will happen to you. Same with drivers going down the highway. I’m sure the person who hit him didn’t wake up that day thinking about how his driving skills were going to be.”
Sada and Rose’s family and friends have spent the past six months asking for more serious charges against the woman accused of hitting and killing the workers. On May 5, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office added two counts of second-degree murder to the woman’s charges.
Getting to ‘zero deaths’
Additional laws intended to deter drunk and distracted drivers is one possible approach that has the support of unions representing the workers, Laborers Local 1191 Business Manager Michael Aaron said.
“Something’s got to be done to these drivers who are not adhering to the safety rules and laws that everyone is talking about — no texting, no drinking and driving,” Aaron said. “There has to be some law stiff enough to get the awareness to people violating these laws.
“Whatever needs to happen to save a life, I believe it should be happening — whether it’s through the legislature, or through MIOSHA, or through MDOT.”
The Michigan Laborers District Council wants to work with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature in a bi-partisan way to create more worksite safety, Alessandrini said.
The laws have not kept pace with the speed of technology improvements, McKernan said. Before smartphones, it was drivers holding their cellphone to their ears while making calls, then more cars offered Bluetooth integration for phones. Now, drivers are texting and scrolling social media while on the road.
“Drivers need to remember — whatever that distraction is, and whatever comes down the road in the future — they need to pay attention to their surroundings,” he said.
All drivers take on a very serious responsibility, to keep the people around them safe, when they get behind the wheel, McKernan said.
“You see those signs, immediately slow down and start looking,” Hollemans said. “There could be a lot more to it than you think. There could be vehicles going in and out of traffic, in and out of the work zone. … You may not see all the signs, even if you don’t, we are still out there trying to work for you in the community.
One road worker, Larry Leonarduzzi, has already been killed in 2021, MDOT said. Leonarduzzi was working with the Iron County Road Commission in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Jan. 13, when a driver failed to stop and hit him, the Iron County Reporter said.
And as road construction in Michigan begins shifting into high gear, the goal for MDOT remains “zero deaths” on Michigan roads. It’s why the department’s safety campaign is called “Toward Zero Deaths,” Bates said.
“Our goal with every year is to see zero deaths — zero deaths in our work zones, zero deaths on our roads,” Bates said. “Ultimately, one is too many.”