New law reduces speed limits, clarifies signs near work zones

  • Article by: BEENA RAGHAVENDRAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2014 - 5:55 AM

The limit will be 45 mph when workers are present, and signs will tout a $300 base fine.

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Construction workers Nick Norman, Joe Olson and Eldio Ferreira worked on a lane of Hwy. 55 in Inver Grove Heights.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Ron Rajkowski wasn’t stressed about losing his road construction job, but about losing his life.

He’d said repeatedly that he felt unsafe working on the sides of highways as cars whizzed past him. In October of 2011, his wife, Jodi, recalled, “He said, ‘I’ll be dead before I’m 50.’ ”

The next week, he and another worker were killed in a work zone accident.

On Friday, a new Minnesota law aimed at protecting road workers takes effect, demanding slower speeds in work zones and setting a definitive fine for those who speed there.

The ambiguous “fines will be doubled” will be replaced by a clearer minimum fine for speeding: $300. When workers are present and a lane or a part of traffic is closed for more than 24 hours, the work zone speed limit will drop to 45 miles per hour.

The law also raises the fine for ignoring workers controlling traffic to $300 minimum. It also allows public transportation agencies to reduce work zone speed limits any time there are workers in the zone, if they see fit.

It’s the first significant change to Minnesota’s construction work zone safety law in about 15 years. Currently, fines vary by county and range from $50 to $680. The average work zone safety fine for two-lane and four-lane roadways in 2013 was $212, said Kevin Gutknecht of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Research by MnDOT found that “fines doubled in work zones” signs weren’t effective in getting drivers to slow down. Instead, posting high dollar fines for speeding did the best job of slowing speeds.

Since 2010, Minnesota has seen 31 fatal crashes with six resulting in worker fatalities, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety said. In 2013, there were 1,740 crashes, and eight of those were fatal, MnDOT said.

The minimum fine is consistent with other states, said Gerald Ullman, senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; there are some states that have higher fines for speeding. But on roadways with higher speed limits when the drop to 45 mph causes drivers to slow down more than 10 mph under the posted speed limit, Minnesota’s law becomes stricter than that of many states.

Advocates have been working for a few years to change work zone speeds, including the families of the workers killed and the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota and Egan Co., where Rajkowski and his colleague Craig Carlson were employed.

Hazards in the work zones

Cars traveling past workers on the road don’t just drive by — they zoom. Semitrailer trucks can create a jolt of wind. If they’re speeding, the ground shakes.

Only orange plastic cones separated traffic from four construction workers filling cracks and bumps in the right lane of Hwy. 52 Friday.

“You hear a squealing sound — everybody jumps,” said Nick Norman, a construction worker with PCI Roads, based in St. Michael.

Reed Leidle, a project manager with traffic control company Safety Signs, clocked traffic speeds at the start of the work zone, ahead of where work was happening. Cars were driving, on average, about 5 miles over the speed limit, he said.

The danger isn’t just to workers. Drivers are often the ones killed and injured, said Ken Johnson, state work zone engineer with MnDOT.

But using the 45 mph speed limit to prevent accidents on much higher-speed roadways can prove difficult, Ullman said. It’s hard to enforce, especially when people are used to driving much faster, he said.

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  • Construction worker Eldio Ferreira worked on a lane of Hwy. 55 in Inver Grove Heights as trucks flew past in the next lane. Starting Aug. 1, speed limits will be 45 mph when workers are present.

  • Work zone laws

    Wisconsin

    Double original fine; workers must be present; signs don’t.

    North Dakota

    Minimum $80; signs and workers must be present.

    South Dakota

    Fines double up to $500, 30 days jail or both; signs and workers must be present.

    Iowa

    Double original fine, up to $1,000; signs must be present; workers don’t have to be.

    Illinois

    $375 (first offense); $1,000 (subsequent offenses); signs must be present, but workers don’t.

    Other:

    33 states and the District of Columbia double fines in a work zone.

    Source: Governors Highway Safety Association

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