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Michigan’s road workers deserve more than safety signs and a few orange barrels

Michigan’s road workers deserve more than safety signs and a few orange barrels

Lansing State Journal

John Osika, guest writer

A worker on a highway project must be absolutely focused on the job they’re doing.

They may be operating heavy machinery. They may be moving concrete pipes as large as a school bus. These tasks require precision, and construction workers perform them while cars and trucks fly by them, inches away at high speeds.

Signs posted at these work zones say 45 miles per hour. Some say 60. The reality is most motorists speed past these work areas at 70, 80 and sometimes even 90 miles per hour.

These motorists aren’t just speeding. They may also be checking texts, updating Facebook or Googling directions. Some of these drivers may have been drinking. Or they may be a driver trying to make up for lost time on a delivery.

Often, the only protection between the worker sawing concrete and a drunk driver careening out of control is a sign and some orange barrels.

In my career, I’ve been a project superintendent overseeing highway work. Some of the worst moments of the job are when I get a call at 3 a.m. from the Michigan State Police, letting me know that a drunk driver has crashed into a job site. I remember the knot in my stomach in the few moments before the officer on the other end of the line tells me whether anyone was hurt or killed. I’ve experienced the relief of knowing no one was injured, and the anger that follows with the realization that the incident could have been much worse.

I’m frustrated that reckless drivers across Michigan continue to put lives at risk while delaying critical road projects that benefit everyone.

All these considerations pale in comparison to hearing someone was hurt, or worse, killed. When these tragedies happen, entire families are torn apart and whole communities grieve. As someone who’s responsible for these workers, I keep thinking of the parents who ask me how safe their child — my student or my recruit — is while they work improving our roads and highways. We can replace broken equipment. We can’t replace lost lives.

Many motorists barely see us, the construction crews. They don’t see the signs reducing speed limits in work zones, or even the bright orange ones warning them to slow down because workers are present.

We need more than well-meaning signs. Here are some suggestions.

The safest project I ever worked on was the rebuilding of I-96 through Redford and Livonia because the project used a full closure and detour, the best options to promote safety.

To slow motorists down, police presence can help. So can real consequences.

Motorists who drive distracted or recklessly in work zones must face costly fines. Their driving records must reflect these violations, including points deductions. Right now, fines are not severe enough and points can be waived — even after a motorist gets pulled over for barreling through a work zone.

We should also consider installing cameras in work zones, something other countries and a few states now do with success at reducing speeding and reckless driving. To provide ample notice to motorists, signs could announce cameras in use and signs reducing speed limits could also be placed further from the start of the work zone.

These measures can add to a culture that celebrates safety and protects lives — the lives of construction workers and motorists on the road.

We need to remember that the people working to make the roads safe have families too and deserve to work with as much safety as possible. We need legislative partners to step up and protect them, and drivers to be reminded that they have a responsibility to share the roads.

John Osika is the training director for Operating Engineers 324.