January 23, 2022

Road workers: ‘Watch out’

Photo provided by Suit-Kote

Suit-Kote workers pave Route 41 in Williet in September. Highway construction workers have frequent stories of diving out of the way of drivers speeding through work zones, despite laws increasing fines and data showing that tickets for work zone speeding are dropping in Cortland and Tompkins counties.

Amber Stevens can’t remember everything about that sunny day in September 2016 when she nearly died. She was a flagger for the state Department of Transportation, routing traffic around her co-workers at a work site on Route 13 near Dryden.

She saw the car, coming fast. It didn’t slow for the three vehicles stopped ahead of it. She grabbed the radio to warn her fellow workers and dove over the embankment.

The car got past the flagger on Cold Brook Road near Homer and headed for Jay Forbes, a foreman with the Cortland County Highway Department. It was September 2011, and roads had flooded. Forbes and his crew were repairing the damage.

The flagger had the stop sign up, but the car wouldn’t stop. Forbes and his young co-worker jumped out of the way.

In August, Suit-Kote Corp. superintendent Tim Carr had trucks in two lanes of Interstate 81, slowing traffic as workers set up for the job.

A Dodge Ram — interesting what one notices when a pickup truck is headed for you — sped down the shoulder of the road. Carr radioed ahead to warn his crew.

Pick a highway construction worker, almost any worker, and you’re likely to hear a similar story. In fact, Economy Paving of Cortland lost three workers in one accident in 2005. Jason Pessoni, 30, of Cincinnatus, Jonathon J. Randall, 32, and Wayne Bonsell, 39, both of Binghamton, were killed when a charter bus sped through a work zone on Interstate 81 just north of Binghamton doing 60 mph as it struck the three men. The driver was charged with two misdemeanors and a speeding ticket.

Since 2009, speeding through work zones in Cortland and Tompkins counties has dropped 93 percent, show data collected by the Rosenblum Law Firm from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We are hoping to create some transparency about how New York police are giving out tickets to the general public,” Director of Marketing Elie Orgel said.

This chart shows the number of tickets issued to motorists between 2009 and 2017. Source: Rosenblum Law Firm

However, the highway workers suggest the numbers are misleading.

Suit-Kote’s work on Interstate 81 has migrated into Onondaga County, Carr said. One can’t speed through a work zone — or ticket a driver for it — if there’s no work zone.

Forbes, Carr and Stevens say work zone speeding is routine.

“On any given day someone will come back with a story,” Forbes said.

‘I touched base almost every day’

The state police Traffic Instant Management Team places an officer at each work site. State police Tech. Sgt. Joseph Hommel said the unit covers Route 17 and interstates 81, 86 and 88. Police officers will help slow traffic and lane closures or sit in the work zone making sure people follow the speed limit.

There were 1,208 tickets for texting and talking while on a phone handed out in Cortland County 2009, dropping to 387 in 2017. In Tompkins County, the numbers went from 1,238 in 2009 to 761 in 2017.

After having many speeding incidents, Carr reached out to state police in April.

“I touched base with them almost every day,” he said. “It’s helped us tremendously and helped slow them down.”

He said that he’s even seen three officers out at a work site.

“At any given time they’re stopping someone,” Carr said.

‘It’s a juggling thing’

However, Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms said his department doesn’t have the people or budget to support having an officer located at each work site on a county road.

“Every once in a while we’ll get a complaint and we’ll go out and check it out, but we don’t have the budget and we don’t have the people to sit at every work site” Helms said.

He said since becoming sheriff three years ago he’s had to deal with being down three officers each year.

“Much like everything else, it’s a juggling thing,” he said.

He also said that work zones in the county aren’t like the traditional work site people may think of. He said that for major projects like working on bridges, the bridge would be closed to traffic, rather than diverted to a single lane or a temporary bridge. Helms also said that a lot of work in the county doesn’t take weeks or months like sites seen on Interstate 81, but rather days.

Forbes said the county workers can’t call law enforcement every time something happens, hoping an officer would be posted to the area.

“If we did, someone would have to be out here for eight hours every day,” he said.

Consequences for drivers

Drivers can face fines and points on their license and car insurance rate increases. Laws also governing how drivers should behave in workzones. In 2005, the WorkZone Safety Act was enacted to ensure motorist and work zone safety on highways.

The act:
• Suspends for 60 days the license of an individual convicted of two or more speeding violations in a work zone.

• Mandates the presence of police and radar speed display devices in major work zones.

• Creates a public education program funded by a $50 surcharge on all speeding violations in work zones.

In 2011, New York enacted the “Move-Over” law protecting emergency personnel during roadside stops. The law was amended in 2012 to include construction vehicles.

Fines range from $178 for 1 to 10 mph over the limit to up to $1,968 for 41 mph or faster than the limit. Points on a license range from 3 to 11 — enough to lose a license on one violation. Further, two convictions for speeding in a work zone within 18 months can lead to a license revocation.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Curtis Jetter said DOT officials have gone to local municipal courtrooms to show their support for workzone safety.

“They’re in the courtroom to show just how serious the DOT is about enforcing work zone safety,” he said. “It’s one of our priorities.”

They have families

The construction workers returned to the job. “You’re a little bit nervous, but at the same time you’re angry,” Forbes said. “They put your life and others in danger.”

He noted feeling like drivers think of the workers as an inconvenience.

He said some of it is intentional with people speeding because they are in a hurry. Other times, he said, it’s because of distracted driving.

“Basically, what people are saying is that our lives don’t matter,” Forbes said.

Carr finds it stressful. “I just think to myself ‘Why do people even do this?’ It could be their sons, daughters, their wives, husbands,” he said.

It’s tough on their families, too.

Stevens had to explain her incident to her 9-year-old son.

“It frightened him,” she said. “He was extremely worried. ‘If my mommy is going to go to work today is she going to come back home tonight?’“

After hearing stories the DOT began the campaign Flaggers Have Families Too, meant to show that everyone, flagger or driver, has a family to get back home to.

“People like Amber and other flaggers who are out there, they’re just doing their job and all they want to do is get home to their families just like the people on the road at the end of days’ work,” Jetter said.

‘Please don’t let it hit me’

Stevens hit her head that day she dove over the embankment. She had a concussion and tore ligaments in her neck. To this day, there are parts of the incident she cannot recall.

She does remember thinking:
“How am I going to get out of its way? Please don’t let it hit me. Please don’t let this vehicle roll over on me. I hope I can go home and see my son tonight.”