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Work-zone injuries down over decades

Road construction equipment kicks up dust on an interchange project at Interstate 94 and Highway 65 near Roberts. (File photo by Bill Klotz)

Road construction equipment kicks up dust recently on an interchange project at Interstate 94 and Highway 65 near Roberts. Work zone injuries and deaths have decreased since 1998, the year legislators passed a bill doubling fines for speeders in construction zones. (File photo by Bill Klotz)

Highway workers might have benefited from a proposed bill that, had it been adopted, would have prohibited the use of hand-held cellphones in construction zones, a state patrol officer said Wednesday.

But there’s only so much lawmakers can do.

Sgt. Mark Abrahamson of the Wisconsin State Patrol’s Fond du Lac office said it would be oversimplifying matters to say the Legislature deserves all the credit for a slight decrease in the deaths or injuries of highway workers in recent years, although new laws certainly have helped. In 1998, legislators passed a bill doubling the fines imposed on those who speed in work zones.

From that year until 2003, about 11 workers were killed and 1,107 injured on average annually in the zones, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. By 2013, the number of deaths on average for the six preceding years had fallen only to nine, but injuries had decreased to 739.

Abrahamson said he can only speculate about whether Senate Bill 479, which would have prohibited the use of cellphones in construction zones in most circumstances, would have helped lower those numbers further. The bill got committee approval Jan. 16 but then became one of hundreds of proposals to stall in the state Assembly or Senate before April 3, the last scheduled day for regular business in the latest legislative session.

Abrahamson said he generally favors lawmakers making “efforts to encourage drivers to stay attentive and not be distracted by devices.”

But SB 479 met with a lukewarm response in the road-building industry. The Wisconsin Transportation Builder Association, which lobbies for companies in the highway industry, took a neutral position on the legislation.

Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the group, expressed doubts Wednesday that the prohibition on cellphone use would be enforceable. He noted that lawmakers decided several years ago to ban texting while driving.

“But every time I come to a stop sign,” Traas said, “when I look around, there are people who are texting.”

It is unclear why SB 479 was not passed by the Legislature. Calls to the author of the bill, state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, were not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

Explicit support for the legislation was lacking, though, among other large players in the road building industry. The Operating Engineers Local 139, which represents many of the workers who run the equipment used in highway construction, did not even have an official stance on the bill registered with the state’s Government Accountability Board.

Dan Sperberg, training director for the union, declined to comment on the legislation. He attributed much of the decline in deaths and injuries not only to the actions of lawmakers, but also better precautions.

Sperberg said work zones are now better marked with signs than they were two decades ago, giving drivers more notice that they need to slow down.

Workers also started to wear green vests rather than orange, a change that helps distinguish them from traffic barrels. And barricades and other obstacles are arranged in ways that offer more protections to workers, Sperberg said.

Many of those practices were adopted after 1998, he said, and have at least as much to do with the improving safety record as does the imposition of double fines.

Carl Thiesen, safety manager for the Waukesha-based paving contractor Payne and Dolan Inc., said credit also should go to the advertising campaigns WisDOT has run in the past several decades, warning the public of the dangers of driving quickly through work zones. If lawmakers want to improve safety, he said, they should consider the risks that crews are subjected to by night work.

Thiesen also said a recurring debate concerns whether speed limits in work zones should be lowered only when workers are present.

“Sometimes drivers get confused because yesterday it was 65 (mph) but now it is 45,” Thiesen said. “But they get mad if the speed is lowered and there is nobody out there.”

Some, meanwhile, say a ban merely in construction zones does not go far enough. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, was the author of a bill that would have prohibited drivers from using hand-held cellphones in nearly all situations.

Barca said he has heard support would be lacking for the more thorough ban.

“But I suspect if you took the vote,” he said, “you’d have the same vote for either.”

Whatever laws are passed, Abrahamson said, much of the good comes from simply making drivers aware of their dangerous behaviors.

“The most important thing,” he said, “is voluntary compliance and raising awareness so we don’t have the need for enforcement.”

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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