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Roadworker death highlights safety shortcomings

Paul Snyder
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Wisconsin roadworkers are at the mercy of inattentive drivers and a difficult-to-enforce move-over law.

“Ultimately, the orange barrel doesn’t do much to protect us,” said Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner and president of the Wisconsin Counties Highway Association. “The worker out there is focused in on the job and the task at hand. They’re somewhat cognizant of traffic, but they have a job to do.”

Wisconsin in 2001 enacted the move-over law, encouraging drivers to change lanes in order to maintain a safe distance from workers, police and other officials who stop on or work on roads. The law is helpful, Stelzner said, but only if people are aware of it.

“Obviously the biggest message we need to get out there is that the law is out there,” he said.

The worst consequence of not recognizing the law became reality Thursday when Dane County highway worker James Porter, 61, was struck and killed by a motorist on Highway 151 near Sun Prairie. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office reconstructed the accident scene Friday, said Chief Deputy Ron Boylan. The incident remains under investigation.

Boylan said alcohol did not play a role in Thursday’s accident. He would not divulge details, but said driver negligence contributed to the crash.

Although similar accidents are relatively infrequent, Stelzner said, roadworker fatalities occurred in Fond du Lac, Winnebago, Taylor and Waukesha counties in the last few years.

Captain Jeffrey Frenette, commander of the Wisconsin State Patrol’s north-central region, said the unfortunate byproduct of such accidents is that they are more effective reminders of the move-over law than citations are.

“The ability to be in a position where you see a violation is very difficult,” Frenette said, “because if we’re in a position to see one, the chances are we’re already engaged in another traffic stop.”

The state patrol will not set up zones to bust drivers not abiding by the law, Frenette said. Instead, officers will continue to push for more education.

But there comes a point where education loses its effectiveness, said Dennis Osgood, La Crosse County highway commissioner.

“There’s been PR (public relations) ads and signs,” he said. “Professional truck drivers are well aware of it.”

Although there have been no traffic-related roadworker fatalities in La Crosse County, Osgood said there are plenty of close calls and trucks and equipment hit in colder months.

And with state and local governments putting more workers on road projects using federal stimulus money, Stelzner said, drivers need to take extra precaution.

The WCHA is working with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and state Legislature to improve work-zone safety, Stelner said, but there is little to protect workers from drivers who do not pay attention.

“Even though flags, barrels and workers are there, drivers get caught up in the highway humdrum,” he said.

“Deaths are just a sad reality of what happens if you’re not complying with the rules.”

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