With a raft of work zone crashes last year, the state is desperate to increase safety.
A busy road construction season turned deadly Thursday when two highway workers were killed by a car that plowed into them alongside Interstate 35W in Burnsville.
Craig D. Carlson, 47, of Ramsey, was thrown about 50 feet and died at the scene. Ronald Rajkowski, 44, of St. Joseph, was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he later died, the Minnesota State Patrol said.
Noting that there have been more than 80 state highway projects underway in the metro area alone this year, officials on Thursday once again pleaded with drivers to use caution when workers are near roadways. No construction workers had been killed in the metro area since 2008, but there were nearly 2,000 crashes in work zones last year and the state has stiff penalties for motorists who violate traffic laws in construction areas.
"Folks need to pay attention in work zones," said Kevin Gutknecht, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, speaking to reporters near the scene. "[Construction workers] have a right to go home to their families safe and sound."
The car that hit Carlson and Rajkowski about 12:35 p.m. was driven by Kirk Deamos, 21, of suburban Kansas City, Mo. The State Patrol said he apparently steered away from a construction wall on his left, but overcompensated and swerved before losing control of the vehicle and spinning into the ditch where the victims were working, just south of McAndrews Road.
According to a Tuesday posting on his Facebook page, Deamos had just acquired the car, a Mitsubishi 3000GT.
He was not hurt and was cooperating with investigators, said State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske, who added that alcohol was not a factor in the crash.
Bonnie Berezovsky, who counsels the state Senate on legislative matters related to transportation, said in recent years Minnesota lawmakers have attempted to lessen the risk to construction workers by including them in the state's "move over" law.
When the law was enacted in 2005, it required that motorists move over one lane away from an emergency vehicle parked along the road when its lights were on. In 2008, lawmakers amended the law to include construction workers.
The agency doesn't know how many work-zone crashes have happened this year, but there were 1,915 last year and 1,788 the year before that. Last year, 11 workers or motorists died in such crashes.
Two weeks ago, a car hit and slightly injured two construction workers in St. Paul on the ramp from southbound Hwy. 280 to westbound Interstate 94. The driver fled on foot and left behind two banged-up passengers and a loaded pistol. In April, a 91-year-old woman was charged with hitting two St. Paul city workers as they picked up trash along Fairview Avenue near the I-94 overpass.
The penalties for hitting a construction worker can vary. If drugs, alcohol or some other type of gross negligence is not involved, motorists can potentially face being charged with reckless or careless driving, and could spend up to 90 days in jail or pay a $1,000 fine or both.
If drugs, alcohol or some other type of gross negligence is involved, the criminal penalty in a case involving death is imprisonment up to 10 years or a fine of up to $20,000 or both; if the worker is injured but doesn't die, it's up to five years or $10,000 or both.
Deamos wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday that he was on his way to Minnesota. Of his new car, he posted that it "is basically faster than ... a rocket. Ready to really test it out on the highway to Minnesota Thursday!!! So pumped! :)."
Deamos, who lives with his grandparents, was on his way to the Twin Cities to see his girlfriend, said grandmother Wanda Akers.
Grandfather Royce Akers said he spoke with the patrol and learned that Deamos "was with a chaplain. He is really traumatized by this. ... I feel so sorry for those [workers'] families as well as my grandson."
The grandfather added, "I learned that he was driving responsibly."
Carlson and Rajkowski were doing electrical work associated with expansion of the MnPASS toll lane system. They were employees of Egan Co. of Brooklyn Park. Egan Vice President Dawn Hofstrand said that her company has "a very good safety record. We're just trying to get all of the information."
Rajkowski's family declined to talk Thursday evening.
Carrie Hedlund, Carlson's younger sister, said he was an electrician by trade, but mostly worked in the office now. She said he had been visiting the Egan Co. crew on 35W when he was hit by the car.
"I just don't understand what happened and why that person went off the road and I want to know so bad," Hedlund said.
She described her brother, who was married with two children, as a caring man who loved gathering with friends and family members at their cabin near Grand Rapids. The family had a walleye fishing trip to Lake of the Woods planned next week, and he was eagerly awaiting rides on a new snowmobile this winter.
"He had a hard time sitting at home on the weekends," Hedlund said. "You could see that he was trying to really cherish and live life to the fullest. He knew that it could be gone quickly. He really took advantage of making memories with his family. "