Let's get tougher and safer to save lives

  • Article by: LISA J. RADUENZ
  • Updated: January 30, 2013 - 10:58 AM
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Jodi Rajkowski held a picture of her husband, Ron, after he and a co-worker were killed by a distracted driver in October 2011.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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On October 13, 2011, at 12:30 p.m., a friend of mine died needlessly and senselessly.

He and another co-worker, both in their 40s, both married with two children, were performing routine electrical work while standing off the shoulder of I-35W just north of County Road 42 in Burnsville. They were positioned over a hand hole off the side of the road, trying to diagnose a cable problem for a Minnesota Department of Transportation construction project, when a 22-year-old from Missouri going 70 miles per hour lost control of his vehicle, crossed three lanes of traffic and struck both of them, like a bowling ball separating two pins, tossing them in separate directions to rest on the nearby hillside.

My friend Craig died instantly. The other worker, whom I did not know, died a few hours later at the hospital. A third worker was lucky enough to have walked to the truck to retrieve a tool just before his co-workers were hit. He turned around at the exact wrong moment to bear eternal witness to what happened to his friends and teammates.

While I did not witness what unfolded in the field that day, I have heard the accounts and have seen video from traffic cameras stationed nearby. As someone who has worked for almost 30 years in the Minnesota transportation industry, I can honestly say that hearing and seeing what happened because of a short span of inattentive driving has changed my life.

Where before I considered myself invincible while working on similar road projects, or expertly driving around a road crew, I now understand that I am not special. I am no different than any other driver, including a 22-year-old from Missouri who thought he could look for the cruise control button on his steering column while driving 70 miles per hour in the left lane on a freeway. His decision to take his eyes off the road for a moment, if that was what he was really doing, cost my friends their lives.

Not only their lives were affected. Consider their two widows, both working hard some 15 months later to be both mother and the father to their kids; the extended families of both men; the local employer, who lost two talented and cherished employees and has grieved alongside the families while providing ongoing support and consideration to them, and those of us who were lucky to have known and benefited from working alongside Craig Carlson and Ron Rajkowski. We are better people and better transportation professionals to have had these two thoughtful and dedicated men in our professional and personal lives.

Last week I watched as the two widows told a Dakota County prosecutor and judge that they wanted to make sure the young man who stood before them served his sentence for reckless driving in a manner that would make him more aware of the danger of distracted driving. After 15 months of grieving and trying to move beyond the shock and anger, both widows had thought long and hard about what they wanted for closure. They asked the judge to sentence the driver to 30 days in jail rather than 90 days, so that he could continue to work each day and earn a living for himself as a productive citizen. And rather than requiring restitution from him, which would have been a significant challenge over many years, they asked the judge to instead sentence the young driver to 200 hours of community service, of a particular kind.

Their request was simple and stunning -- roadside maintenance work, so he would understand what it feels like to see and hear vehicles traveling close by at high speeds while he picks up road debris. His other option would be to do volunteer work with autistic children, a condition shared by two of the four now fatherless children of the victims.

The judge granted the motion, stating that most people who had lost loved ones due to the recklessness of others seek revenge and the highest of penalties. She and the Dakota County prosecutor found the widows' request compelling.

The widows, Deb Carlson and Jodi Rajkowski, also want a few other things that did not get resolved last week. They would like answers as to why there were not simple safeguards in place to protect their husbands. One such safeguard would obviously be a reduction in the speed limit in a work zone while workers are present. While many other states require reduced work zone speed limits, current Minnesota law leaves it to the discretion of the transportation commissioner on a project-by-project basis. In this case the speed limit was not lowered. Another safeguard would be a mandatory concrete or moveable barrier between live traffic and road workers. That, too, is now left to the discretion of a MnDOT construction manager, although the Federal Highway Administration has recently issued strong recommendations for using barriers on high-speed roads.

The widows believe there could have been a different outcome on that fateful day in October 2011 had these safety options been mandatory for every project undertaken on Minnesota's high speed roads.

Amid other recent tragedies -- an infant dying because she was strapped in a car seat and trapped underwater due to her father's poor decision to drive on thin ice on Lake Minnetonka, and a middle-schooler left lying in subzero temperatures on a St. Paul street by a hit-and-run driver -- Deb Carlson and Jodi Rajkowski would also like to see criminal penalties increased for distracted drivers. That would include drivers who aren't paying attention to thin ice warnings, or who don't look for a child or pedestrian crossing the street -- whether it be because they are searching for the cruise control button, applying makeup in the rear-view mirror or just because they dropped something and were trying to find it on the car floor.

As the law currently stands, the 22-year-old from Missouri could only be sentenced with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail, for being distracted enough to accidentally kill two husbands and fathers -- mainly because he wasn't speeding and no evidence of alcohol or chemicals was found.

Tougher laws, higher fines and more attention focused on distracted driving enforcement -- including abundant roadside signs warning drivers of the stiff penalties for these actions, as are now seen in many other states -- could reinforce this message and play a part, along with mandatory work zone speed reductions and safety precautions, in reducing the number of these incidents.

It is time for the Legislature to make these changes happen. Two widows are asking for your help.

Lisa J. Raduenz is senior transportation engineering manager at Iteris Inc. in Minneapolis. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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