Everyone deserves to return home safely at the end of their workday. Yet not all do. A worker was recently killed and another injured on I-94 — a tragic reminder of the work that remains to protect Minnesota’s highway workers.
While one family plans a memorial, the other is dealing with significant injuries and recovery. The Minnesota highway construction industry holds its breath, wondering who the next victim might be. Heartfelt thoughts and prayers can uplift a grieving family, yet those sentiments ring hollow to an industry whose efforts to enact meaningful highway work-zone safety changes have been met with halfhearted actions that do little to change driver behavior and provide the necessary protections for highway workers.
As the latest accident investigation unfolds, let’s look at some facts:
A recent annual nationwide survey of highway construction firms conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America shows that 45 percent of Minnesota construction companies experienced a work-zone crash in 2017. Nationally, 25 percent of work-zone crashes injure construction workers and 11 percent of those crashes kill them.
These alarming facts need to be a call to action for policymakers. However, year after year, change that can be lifesaving is sacrificed in favor of objectives that serve motorists, not the safety of construction workers.
Minnesota was once a national leader in protecting highway workers from the dangers of an occupation where two-ton missiles fly past inches from a spouse, child, mother, father, co-worker and, lest we forget … a fragile human life.
Other states, such as Illinois, have gotten serious about enacting minimum penalties for striking a construction worker in a work zone — sentences that can result in a $10,000 fine and up to 14 years in prison.
In Minnesota, work-zone speed infractions are capped at $300.
Social and technological advances have created multiple distractions for drivers. Construction work zones demand a driver’s full attention to a changed driving environment. Our laws and safety measures have not kept pace, allowing the risks faced by highway workers to explode.
More than 80 percent of Minnesota construction companies have reported that motor vehicle crashes pose a greater risk to worker safety today than they did just 10 years ago.
In 2014, we led a comprehensive effort to update state work-zone safety laws. Sadly, that effort also came in response to a fatal tragedy where two construction workers were killed by an inattentive driver who lost control of his vehicle, striking the men. As debate on the legislation unwound, several important provisions, like mandated barrier protection for construction workers and hands-free-only mobile phone use in construction work zones, were removed.
These provisions failed because they were cast as too expensive, too impactful on traffic flow and even rife with opportunity for selective enforcement. In the shadow of yet another avoidable tragedy, these shortsighted justifications now give rise to anger as another family grieves the senseless loss of their loved one.
While some progress has been made in applying technological solutions to improve work-zone safety, technology alone cannot overcome every human factor in the cause/effect chain of traffic accidents. What is certain is that speed and inattentiveness kill and injure too many construction workers.
Everyone is responsible for work-zone safety. Drivers must be attentive and held accountable for their actions.
We can make the necessary changes and bring forward practical solutions that will improve the safety of work zones. We will continue to lead this effort, once again born of tragedy and sorrow. We hope policymakers finally muster the will to protect the lives of the men and women who work every day to improve our shared transportation infrastructure.
Tim Worke is CEO of Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.