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More cellphone bans considered for work zones

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

A proposed ban on cellphone use in Minnesota construction zones goes a step further than one sought in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s proposed ban has won unanimous committee support but has yet to go before either the full Assembly or Senate. In both versions of the Wisconsin bill, cellphone use in construction zones, except in emergencies and with an exemption for hands-free devices, would be punishable by a $20 to $40 fine for the first offense and by a $50 to $100 fine for a repeat offense.

The Minnesota proposal, which was floated at a public hearing Monday, would make all cellphone use, even with a hands-free device, illegal in construction zones. The bill proposes a $375 fine, which also would apply to drivers who speed in a construction zone or disobey a flagger’s directions.

The measure, sponsored by Minnesota Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, also calls for $375 fines for speeding in work zones. The resulting revenue would pay for a public awareness campaign and enhanced state patrol enforcement. The bill also proposes testing automated speed enforcement in certain construction work zones.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, said he supports a full ban on cellphone use while driving.

Studies have shown, Hornstein said, that talking on a hands-free device is “as much of a problem as talking on the cellphone directly.”

“The studies also show that this is the equivalent of driving drunk,” he said.

In Wisconsin, the state Senate bill was drafted to include the hands-free exemption, and the Assembly version was amended to match.

Wisconsin Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, the lead sponsors of the bills, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Petrowski has said 74 people were killed in Wisconsin construction zones between 2006 and 2012.

No action was taken at Minnesota’s informational hearing, though the ideas got mostly positive reviews. The legislative session begins there Feb. 25.

A steady stream of contractors spoke in favor of the Minnesota bill, as did two women whose husbands were killed in a construction zone on Interstate 35 in Burnsville.

The workers, Ron Rajkowski and Craig Carlson, both of Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based Egan Cos., were repairing a cable on westbound Interstate 35 just north of County Road 42 in October 2011 when a driver crashed into the work zone.

In January 2013, the driver pleaded guilty to one count of careless driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service and a $100 fine, according to news reports.

Deb Carlson, Craig Carlson’s widow, urged the legislative committee to “understand what is at stake for road workers each time they step out on the road or highway to fix a pothole, change a light bulb, pave a road or untangle an electrical cable” and to understand that workers do not have enough protection.

“There is no place to hide,” she said.

Similar proposals have popped up recently in Vermont, Illinois, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Those proposals vary on whether the use of hands-free devices also would be banned.

Thirty-eight percent of highway contractors nationwide reported that motor vehicles crashed into their work zones in the past year, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

According to an AGC survey of 800 highway contractors, 18 percent of those crashes injured at least one construction worker, and 8 percent resulted in a worker’s death.

The survey did not include state-specific data for Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Minnesota contractors who testified at the hearing said distracted driving and speeding in work zones is an increasing concern with the rising use of smartphones and other mobile devices.

Todd Callahan, division manager for St. Michael, Minn.-based PCi Roads, said he has seen “numerous accounts of close calls” in work zones, including at least four incidents in the past year.

“It is a very dangerous environment when you are working on the edge of the road within inches of cars going 60 miles per hour,” he said. “It becomes quite frightening sometimes.”

Erhardt said Minnesota’s proposal stems from an ad hoc committee formed after the Egan Cos. employees were fatally injured. Contractors, unions, the state patrol, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and others were on the committee.

Larry Hanson, safety director for Egan Cos., said at the hearing that the contractor has a rigorous safety program.

Still, he added, contractors can only “prepare as best we can” for difficult work zone conditions, where orange traffic cones are often the only things that separate workers from traffic.

“Despite our best efforts, the double loss of Craig and Ron continue to haunt our entire company,” Hanson said. “We have a pickup that nobody wants to drive because it’s Ron’s truck. We have an office that nobody wants to use because it’s Craig’s.”

Daily Reporter staff writer Beth Kevit also contributed to this report.

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