November 30, 2021

Ramping up road safety

Law would protect highway crews, cyclists, pedestrians

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Traffic passes by a pair of ruined guard rails Tuesday on Interstate 81 near exit 10 in Polkville. A proposed law would increase penalties for aggressive driving in a construction zone, as severe as a felony.

They’re not paying attention.

That is what many constructions workers, bike riders and pedestrians say is one of the biggest reasons motorists hit people riding, working or walking in roadways.

“They’re on their electronic devices or looking over at their spouse or children,” Charlie Sudbrink, the Cortland County Highway Superintendent, said Tuesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced the Slow Down and Look Out for Highway Workers and Pedestrian Act of 2020 for the 2020-21 budget. The act would “impose tougher criminal penalties for violent actions against highway workers and increased safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists,” states a news release from the governor’s office.

Under the act, a motorist who commits a violent action against highway workers, motor vehicle inspectors or motor carrier investigators would be charged with second-degree assault, a felony. People who commit these actions now are charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor.

Motorists could also be charged with a new felony — menacing a highway worker, which would be when someone “intentionally places or attempts to place a highway worker in fear of death or physical injury,” according to the release.

Being convicted of first-, second- or third-degree assault or first-, second- or third-degree menacing would result in immediate suspension of the person’s driver’s license for six months.

Another new crime for entering an active work zone without permission from the person in charge of traffic control or a traffic control device would also be created if the act passes and would be a misdemeanor with the possibility of a fine between $250 to $500 or up to three months in jail.

Sudbrink, who lost his friend, Jason R. Pessoni, in 2005 when Pessoni and two other men who worked with Economy Paving were repairing a section of Interstate 81 just north of Binghamton when they were struck by a tour bus, said close calls happen all the time.

“The SLOW Act is common sense legislation that will help protect the thousands of dedicated men and women who work on our roads every day, battling both the weather and hazardous work conditions, to ensure that we can travel safely,” said state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez.

More than 900 intrusions and incidents of violence toward highway workers have been reported over the past five years, according to the release.

The law would also increase fines for drivers who cause injury to pedestrians or cyclists as a result of not exercising due care on any road, according to the release.

Motorists convicted of causing physical injury would face a fine of $1,000, up from $500. The fine for serious physical injury would be $1,500, up from $750.

“My main concern is certain areas where the traffic is fast and there’s really no place to ride,” said Charles Feiszli, an avid cyclist who lives in Cortland.

That’s particularly a problem in areas like Port Watson Street in Cortland, where cyclists often have a hard time making left turns on to Church Street. He said many drivers don’t pay attention or even get angry.

“Cars don’t appreciate you slowing them down to make a turn,” he said.