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We can – and must – make road work less dangerous

Opinion | We can – and must – make road work less dangerous

By John Osika

Road work can be dangerous work, but it doesn’t have to be. As the training director for Operating Engineers 324, overseeing the education we offer our 14,000 members operating heavy equipment on road projects throughout Michigan, we teach the highest safety standards. Before that, I worked for 30 years in the field on road projects. I have seen the rewards – and dangers – firsthand.

When I was a project superintendent overseeing highway work, some of my most troubling memories are of getting called late at night by the Michigan State Police, informing me that a drunk driver had 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 told 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.

Now, we are in the middle of unprecedented progress on the roads and bridges of Michigan. There has been bipartisan investment made in repairing and replacing our crumbling infrastructure, and the proof is all around us this summer as construction crews undertake the necessary work. We are finally making the investment in ourselves, our families, and our businesses, that good roads and bridges provide.

Now we need to make a similar investment in our road workers, and ensure they are able to complete their work as safely as possible.

We are making progress. Recently, we saw the passage and signing of HB 5286, authorizing contractors to use one or more flashing lights with an illuminated changeable digital message and displaying the speed limit required for a work zone. This is a good first step and assists drivers who may not be aware of the speed they are traveling.

Unfortunately, we know that simply reminding drivers is not enough. That is why we adamantly support two other bills currently working their way through the Michigan Legislature.

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.

HB 5750 has passed the house and awaits the Senate. This bill would grant the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Michigan State Police (MSP) authority to set up automated speed enforcement systems in construction zones on state roads. We have seen this work to great effect in other states.

If speeding was our only issue, that would be troubling enough, but it is not. They may also be checking texts, updating social media or Googling directions. Some of these drivers may have been drinking. Often, the only protection between the worker sawing concrete and a drunk driver careening out of control is a sign and some orange barrels. This risk compounds after dark.

Nighttime construction can be used to great effect – it can speed up a project’s length or allow for lanes to remain open during congested times of the day. We must do everything in our power to make it as safe an environment as possible.

The greatest impact would come from the passing and implementation of HB 5734, requiring concrete barriers, Positive Protection, for work zones active at night. This would put real physical safety barriers between workers and the motorists passing by them. It is a precaution that can be measured in the most important metric of all – the number of lives saved.

With the three referenced bills, including two awaiting passage, we can make Michigan’s roads not only safe to drive on but safe to work on. We teach safety in the work we do. The Michigan Legislature and motorists can help make sure everyone gets home safe at the end of their day.