CLIFTON PARK – Hours after an April 2021 press conference focused on safety in roadside construction sites, a vehicle sped through an I-87 work zone. The vehicle careened off an attenuator and flung one crew member airborne as he’d been picking up traffic cones before slamming into a pickup truck and injuring a second worker.
The highway maintenance employees were rushed to Albany Medical Center. A year later, neither has been able to return to work.
“It was hard to deal with because you know the people,” said David Miller, a New York State Department of Transportation Highway Maintenance supervisor, who was tasked with greeting the workers’ families at the hospital. “I’ll never forget the day. It’s something I do not want to go through again.”
On Wednesday, Department of Transportation leaders, New York State Thruway Authority officials, New York State Police members, highway workers and others gathered at the Clifton Park rest area on the Adirondack Northway near the site of last year’s crash to mark National Work Zone Awareness Week, April 11-15, which is meant to promote awareness about safe driving in highway construction sites. As the snow melts and potholes need repairs, this is the time of year when motorists can expect to see workers in hardhats and bright vests lining the roads.
Pointing to a crumpled piece of construction equipment designed to protect work sites from severe impact, Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said, “this attenuator is a clear indicator of what happens when you don’t pay attention,” she said. “So please slow down, put your phone down, pay attention when you drive. Your life, and the lives of others, is at stake.”
Unfortunately, work zone accidents are all too common.
Last year, there were 378 work zone incidents on New York State Department of Transportation and Thruway Authority-maintained roads, according to the commissioner. More than 50 of those crashes resulted in injuries to highway workers or drivers, Therese Dominguez said. Historically, 56 highway workers have died in such work zone crashes, with the most recent occurring in March of 2019, according to the commissioner.
Last year, 175 work zone crashes occurred on the Thruway alone, said NYS Thruway Director of Maintenance and Operations Jim Konstalid.
“Put that in perspective, that’s about one every other day,” he said.
In the past 5 years, there have been more than 1,000 work zone crashes on the Thruway, Konstalid said.
“That’s 1,000 times that our roadside crews have been put in jeopardy, 1,000 times our work zone was disrupted, 1,000 times our workers went home – if they were lucky enough – and had to tell their loved ones they had a near miss that day,” Konstalid said. “I can tell you, honestly, the worst days on the job are when you get a call that there has been a work zone crash. Your heart stops, your mind automatically thinks of the worst, and time stands still.”
Matt Anderson’s heart stopped about a year ago when the truck he sat in was hit during a lunch break.
“All of a sudden our driver saw the car coming in the mirror and he said ‘hold on,’ and next thing I know the truck is rocking,” said the Thruway maintenance worker, who has been on the job about a year and a half. His fellow worker was outside the truck just seconds before impact. Thankfully, no one was injured.
Anderson’s message to drivers is to put down their phones and obey the posted speed limits.
“You guys might not think you’re going fast, but it’s pretty fast when you’re standing on the side of the road,” Anderson said. “There is at least once a week where you jump out of the truck and somebody doesn’t move over and it almost blows your hardhat off.”
Beyond advocacy efforts, the state also has multiple initiatives in place – or about to be in place – to help cut down on traffic violations and slow drivers down.
Last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul, signed legislation to initiate a pilot program that will use photo devices to monitor traffic and enforce safety in work zones.
“Soon enough, when you’re out there driving across the state, you’re going to see speed cameras in work zones,” said Associated General Contractors of New York State President and CEO Mike Elmendorf, who helped lobby for the legislation. “Smile, you’re on candid camera. Only you’re not going to get a laugh if you’re speeding in the work zone. You’re going to get a piece of mail that’s going to be a ticket with a fine.”
The pilot program works in tandem with other initiatives such as Operation Hardhat, in which members of law enforcement disguise themselves as construction workers to enforce traffic violations in work zones. A total of 2,336 tickets were issued during Operation Hardhat details in 2021, breaking the previous record of 2,018 tickets set during 2020, according to NYSDOT.
The advocacy efforts and traffic enforcement measures are meant to keep workers like Anderson safe. A year later, he regularly flashes back to the moment of impact.
“It’s still something that you think about every day,” Anderson said. “You go home and it sits in your head that it could happen at any time.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.