CLIFTON PARK — Highway managers and contractors are making a plea for drivers to slow down and pay attention in work zones this summer.
Two recent crashes in Saratoga County alone left five people injured, two seriously, they said.
The outreach Wednesday is timed to the traditional start of the summer vacation and road trip season — Memorial Day weekend — but it’s also timed to a confluence of events that are putting more people in harm’s way.
The number of highway crashes increased early on during the pandemic even though fewer people were driving, possibly because those who were driving figured it was safe to go faster in lighter traffic.
Crash rates remain elevated, and because of all the state and federal infrastructure spending, there will be more construction zones to navigate this year.
Roadwork will be suspended for the busy holiday weekend, so highway workers won’t be at risk. But the work zones they are vacating still will have an array of barriers erected to steer motorists through narrow and shifting driving lanes. So unsafe or inattentive drivers are still at risk of injury and of being ticketed — work zone traffic violations are violations even if there is no work being done there.
Wednesday’s news conference featured the leaders of the state Department of Transportation, state Thruway Authority, a statewide contractor industry group and a labor-employer coalition. They spoke at the Clifton Park Rest Area along the Northway in front of a crash attenuator, a device rigged up to the back of a truck to absorb the impact of a rear-end collision and protect the occupants of the truck.
This particular attenuator, owned by the state DOT, is useless for anything but making a point now, having served its purpose in a crash.
State DOT Commissioner Maria Therese Dominguez noted two DOT employees were seriously injured last month — during National Work Zone Safety Awareness Week — when a motorist hit them on the Northway in Malta. Three contractors’ employees were less seriously injured by a motorist on Route 9 in Malta the same day, she said.
“Work zone safety is literally a matter of life and death,” she said. “From 2018 to 2020, there were a total of 794 intrusions involving DOT and contract employees.”
Intrusions — where a passing vehicle moves from a driving lane into a work area — are extremely dangerous for the people on the ground there. The 794 intrusions resulted in 51 serious injuries and seven fatalities, Dominguez said. Over the years, 56 DOT employees have died on the job across the state, she added.
Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll said there have been more than 10 work zone crashes just in the last year involving Thruway maintenance vehicles — the large yellow trucks with flashing lights that are really hard to not see.
One of these crashes was caught on video April 19 near Exit 25 in Guilderland. The last member of the work crew got in one of the two trucks just 20 seconds before a car came roaring along the shoulder between the trucks and guardrail, smashing into the lead truck and careening across the highway to come to a halt on the opposite shoulder. The driver was saved from a second crash only by the fact that another motorist was paying attention and could stop in time.
Troopers issued the driver four traffic citations.
“Luckily, no one was injured. But seconds earlier, I’d be telling you a different story,” Driscoll said.
Video of the crash:
He called the video shocking, and said: “I encourage you to watch it yourself to get a sense of how dangerous work zones can be.”
The video was captured by a truck-mounted camera that is among the work zone safety initiatives the Thruway Authority has undertaken this year.
Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the Latham-based Associated General Contractors of New York state, said the industry advocacy organization pressed this year for increased safety measures such as automated traffic citations from speed cameras. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposals weren’t taken up by the Legislature, he added.
In the meantime, some contractors are resorting to buying old police cars and parking them in work zones, as they tend to slow people down, Elmendorf said. Some are even making bogus reports on the Waze app of police lurking near their work zones, in hopes that motorists will get an alert on their smartphones and slow down.
About those smartphones … they’re one of the reasons why work zones are more dangerous now than a decade ago, Driscoll said.
“Slow down, put down the phone, stop playing with the radio and limit your distractions,” he said. “Why? Because these are real people with families.”
As they risk injury from the vehicles zipping past just feet away, highway maintenance workers also risk injury from the tools and machinery they are operating if they don’t pay attention to it — so they can’t check over their shoulder every few seconds for a stray car or truck coming at them.
Patrick Purcell, executive director of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, noted the baseline danger is ratcheted up if motorists don’t do their part to keep workers safe.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like to not only be working on these roads while this is happening, but for some of them, doing it in the middle of the night. We all just simply need to do better.”
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