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Commentary: Hang up the phone in construction zones

By Caley Clinton

Drivers pass the Highway 100 bridge reconstruction project Thursday in West Allis. A state senator has proposed banning cellphone use for drivers in construction zones. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Drivers pass the Highway 100 bridge reconstruction project Thursday in West Allis. A state senator has proposed banning cellphone use for drivers in construction zones. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Wanted: road workers who are willing to risk their lives. Must be able to move quickly and tuck and roll while diving away from oncoming traffic. Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree sight radius preferred.

Clearly, these are not acceptable requirements for a job.

But for three Marathon County Highway Department employees in fall, those skills probably saved their lives.

“This trucker was going 70 mph in a work zone, talking on his cellphone,” the department’s commissioner, James Griesbach, said. “My guys had to jump out of the way to avoid him.”

Griesbach is fed up.

He has been pushing state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, for two years to introduce a statewide cellphone ban in construction zones. This year, Griesbach succeeded.

Petrowski in December drafted a bill to ban the use of cellphones while drivers travel through construction zones. Drivers still would be able to talk using a hands-free device.

“It’s a safety issue,” Petrowski said. “There have been 74 fatalities in Wisconsin work zones in the past six years. That’s enough of a reason right there.

“Drivers minds should be on driving, not operating a cellphone.”

In 2012, according to WisDOT statistics provided by Griesbach, there were 1,675 accidents in Wisconsin work zones, and six people died as a result.

Griesbach uses such statistics when he talks to local driver’s education classes, advising students to be careful driving in construction zones. Those efforts, and his many calls to Petrowski’s office, are part of improving conditions for his employees.

“My workers are continuously asking if there’s anything I can do to help them,” Griesbach said.

I don’t blame them.

When I was editor of The Daily Reporter’s former magazine, Wisconsin Builder, I spent a cold night on Highway 41 in Winnebago County, reporting on overnight roadwork. Standing by the workers in a small construction zone while trucks and cars sped by was disorienting and, several times, alarming.

As Brian Enright, now operations manager with Brownsville-based Michels Corp.’s materials division, said at the time, “That orange barrel’s not saving anyone. We always tell our guys, ‘Never turn your back.’”

According to statistics from Petrowski’s office, there were 11,747 crashes in Wisconsin work zones between 2006 and 2012. That’s a lot of jumping out of the way.

“If you don’t think cellphones are an issue,” Griesbach said, “next time you’re on the cellphone while driving, hang up and then think what you’ve seen in the last five minutes.

“You’ll be surprised at how little you were aware of.”

He has a point.

According to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit, nongovernmental public service organization, drivers using cellphones during simulated tests were so distracted that they were unaware of some traffic signals. The more emotionally engaged in the call, the less attentive they were.

“Talking on the phone is often what’s behind bad driving,” Petrowski said. “Cellphones in cars might be widely used, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also dangerous.”

As of Friday morning, the senator had 12 co-sponsors, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, for his proposed legislation. His office planned to officially file the bill later that day.

Griesbach, who said he wants a complete ban on cellphone use while driving, said he’s glad the push has started where it matters most: construction zones.

“We really need to do something to protect our workers,” he said.

With proposed fines of $20 to $40 for a first offense and $50 to $100 for a second, the proposed legislation should be enough to save some lives and, hopefully, lead to a more reasonable job description for the people who deserve our attention.

Caley Clinton is associate editor of The Daily Reporter. She has not yet taken her hands-free cellphone device out of its box (sorry, Mom).

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