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.
“People typically don’t change their driving behavior for a speed limit that they don’t perceive to be reasonable and consistent with what everybody else is doing,” he said.
Larry Hanson, safety director and claims manager for Egan Co., said that the company puts its best safety measures in place — hazard vests, beacons, signage and vehicles between workers and traffic. But the company can do only so much when drivers aren’t following the rules.
Still steps to go
When Rajkowski and Carlson were killed, the driver had his car on cruise control when he saw the work zone. Instead of hitting the brakes, he fiddled with the cruise control setting on the steering wheel, then felt he was veering to the left. He overcorrected and drove into the work zone, right into Carlson and Rajkowski.
Supporters of the new law plan to press for more changes. State Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, chairman of the House’s transportation policy committee, said the bill initially tried to ban cellphone use in work zones, but it was difficult to enforce.
“How do you draft legislation that addresses certain obvious types of behavior without catching safe behavior in that same net?” said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, vice chairwoman of the Senate transportation and public safety committee. “And we weren’t able to get past that.”
Kent said she thinks cellphone legislation will be a continuing conversation.
A second effort will be to strengthen the penalties for people who disobey flag workers in a zone. The group advocating for the law hopes to change it to let flaggers give a reasonable description of the vehicle or license plate number to give a ticket — similar to school bus drivers’ ability to report vehicles that go through their stop arms.
But stricter laws can’t bring back lost lives. At Egan Co., where Rajkowski and Carlson worked, no one has touched Rajkowski’s car and no one sits in Carlson’s office, said executive vice president Duane Hendricks. In addition, the company’s insurance costs rose, and fear of the roadways increased, too.
“We have a safety slogan: ‘Safety brings you home,’ ” Hendricks said. “When we can’t do that, it becomes very, very difficult for us.”
Jodi Rajkowski said explaining to her two sons that their father wasn’t coming home was a difficult thing, made harder because they are on the autism spectrum.
“These are real people,” she said. “These are somebody’s father, son, husband, whatever — they need to go home at night.”