The Big Story Blog

The Big Story Blog: October 14, 2011 Archive

Highway work zone danger: 3 things

Posted at 8:00 AM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

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(Photo courtesy of KSTP/Mitch Pittman)

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel pleaded with drivers two weeks ago to slow down.

"There are thousands of workers on our state and local roadways every day who are working to improve our transportation system," Sorel said after two workers were hit near Interstate 94 and Highway 280. "They deserve to be safe. They deserve to be able to go home to their families after their shift."

Sorel's plea turned sadly prophetic Thursday afternoon when a 21-year-old driver lost control of his car, spun into a ditch and killed two workers at a construction site along I-35W in Burnsville.

We're spending today reporting and talking about highway safety in Minnesota and what happens when we don't slow down. We need your voice in this conversation. Tell us what you've seen on the highways. Post below or contact us directly.

Here are three things we know this morning.

1.) Crashes and deaths. MnDOT says there were 1,900 highway work zone crashes last year in Minnesota -- more than five a day. Eleven people died. We'll parse some of the trend data later today but there doesn't seem to be a consistent pattern the past few years. Crash numbers have gone up and down.

Nationally, work zone fatalities have declined through most of the decade. Still, the U.S. Department of Transportation says 667 people were killed in work zones in 2009. One hundred were people working on a project; more than 40,000 drivers, passengers and workers were injured in work zones.

2. More work zones. Aging bridges and roadways mean more repairs, which means more road crews and work zones. The Federal Highway Administration says drivers are increasingly exposed to work zones.

3.) We've all done it. Every one of us has driven too fast at some point through a construction zone. My MPR News colleague Bob Collins made a few quick calculations and observed:

Most construction zones in Minnesota are under a mile long, many are a fraction of that. Slowing from 65 to 40 for one mile will get you where you're going 22 seconds later. That's about half the time it took to read this far down in this post.
We'll do more reporting on this issue today. Help make the reporting smarter by adding your voice.

For Friday 10/14/11: Work zone danger

Posted at 8:00 AM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Hed

Need-to-read stories on work zone, highway dangers

Posted at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

We're learning more details this morning about the highway work zone crash that killed two men, the ongoing concerns about the safety of people who do the job and what's being done to make things better.

We'll be exploring all those issues today on the Big Story Blog.

Minnesota Today editor Michael Olson pulled together a feed of stories on roads and highway safety, including an interview with the family of one of the workers killed.


Other quotes and stories:
The driver, Kirk Deamos, 21, told officials he braked and turned right too sharply, and then turned left and then right again to try to maintain control of the car. The car spun out in the ditch on the right side of the road and struck the workers.

On a Facebook account apparently registered to Deamos, there was this posting Tuesday: "Today is a good day! I am now the proud owner of a red 3000gt that is basically faster than a rocket ... Ready to really test it out on the highway to Minnesota Thursday!!! So pumped! :)"

On a picture of a car's dented rear bumper, Deamos commented "Don't worry, my motto is safety first!!! Hahaha, oh wait, no it's not... It's, live fast, and try not to hit many light poles!

Two work zone safety stats to chew on

Posted at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

We're parsing data and insight today on highway work zone safety in the aftermath of Thursday's accident that killed two highway workers.

We came across some compelling facts from the Federal Highway Safety Administration

zonesafety2.jpg

The danger's always been there. Drivers and passengers are still the most likely to die in work zone accidents. But as our bridges and roads age, there are more work zone sites and more people out there doing the work.

Work zone dangers 'frustrating, extremely preventable'

Posted at 11:33 AM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

We went searching for a first-person account of how dangerous it can be for workers in highway construction zones. Chad Dillman found us.

Dillman, a traffic control supervisor for Safety Signs Inc. in Lakeville, is one of those guys on the highways who try to channel traffic safely away from works zones while construction's underway.

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With the deaths Thursday of two workers at a construction site along I-35W in Burnsville, Dillman sent a note in through MPR's Public Insight Network to tell us what he's seen and how frustrating and dangerous it can be out there. His company, he said, was working another metro area project with the two men killed Thursday.

Even when people aren't there, "it's amazing how many times you can come back to a work zone and see equipment just obliterated," he told MPR News reporter Tim Nelson this morning. "When we're in there, you always have to keep your eyes open."

He's come close several times to being hit or killed. Six times, he said, cars have rear-ended a few feet away from him while he was trying to close a lane on an onramp.

Cars approaching are supposed to stop and wait for an opening in the traffic. "Instead, most people are looking over their shoulder (at the highway traffic) while I'm setting up a diagonal line of drums to close the lane they're in."

"If they do seem to turn around to see me, it usually startles them. They slam on their brakes and the car behind them rear ends them. That's happened literally six times within four or five feet of me."

People aren't paying attention to the signs ahead of them that lanes are closed or merging.

Minnesota officials, he adds, do a great job of trying to keep sites safe and raise public awareness. And the industry has done a lot to make things better. It's the public that needs to be more aware of the danger they create.

Deaths and injuries in the work zones, he added, are "very frustrating and very angering -- and extremely preventable."

We're looking for more voices in this conversation from workers and drivers. Tell us what you've seen on the highways. Post below or contact us directly.

Speeding not a factor in I-35W work zone crash

Posted at 12:28 PM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

Minnesota State Patrol officers investigating Thursday's fatal highway work zone crash in Burnsville are still working through what happened and why. But they've determined that the driver wasn't speeding.

The patrol early this afternoon tweeted:

#MSPfatal 35W/McAndrews from yesterday- We do not believe excessive speed was a factor in the crash.
Oct 14 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply



The speed issue had come up following the crash. MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran last night wrote that despite the construction, the State Patrol said the speed limit there was 70 mph.

The State Patrol incident report said the driver of the Mitsubishi 3000GT that hit the workers was in the left lane and had slowed down as he approached the construction area. The "driver felt he was too close to the construction wall," the report said.

The driver told officials he braked and turned right too sharply, and then turned left and then right again to try to maintain control of the car. The car spun out in the ditch on the right side of the road and struck the workers.

Officials said they have not determined whether the driver was speeding, but (State Patrol Lt. Eric) Roeske said, "there was no information from witnesses that would indicate it was excessive."

Now it's confirmed that speeding was not the issue.

MnDot says I-35W crash zone speed was lowered

Posted at 2:00 PM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

How fast was too fast?

That's been one of the questions this morning stemming from Thursday's deadly I-35W work zone crash.

Officials in some of the initial reports noted that the speed limit was 70 mph on that stretch of highway and that they were investigating whether the speed of the driver's car contributed to the crash.

Earlier this afternoon, the State Patrol said it determined the driver was not speeding.

That still left one puzzling factor: Why wasn't the speed limit lowered at the construction site?

It turns out it was. MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar says MnDOT this afternoon is saying the speed limit where the crash occurred was posted at 60 mph, down from the normal 70 mph, and that drivers would have seen an orange sign as they approached the work zone.

Dunbar adds: MnDOT says distractions are biggest danger in work zones."

What was the worst year for fatal MN highway crashes?

Posted at 3:21 PM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

1973.

Turns out the 70s were pretty lousy when it comes to traffic injuries and deaths in Minnesota.

We dug up this chart from the Department of Public Safety.

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For as awful as it is to report on highway deaths like the ones Thursday in a work zone on I-35W, the reality is that deaths and injuries on the road have dropped dramatically over the years even as the population and miles driven have increased.

Three things learned on highway work zone danger

Posted at 4:45 PM on October 14, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Transportation

kstpphoto.png
(Photo courtesy of KSTP/Mitch Pittman)

Investigators are still working through what happened Thursday when a 21-year-old driver lost control of his car on I-35W in Burnsville, spun into the ditch and killed two workers.

In our reporting today and in our conversations with readers, we learned a few things about highway safety in Minnesota and what happens when we don't slow down.

1.) It's scary out there. Chad Dillman, a traffic control supervisor for Safety Signs Inc. in Lakeville, is one of those guys on the highways who try to channel traffic safely away from works zones while construction's underway. He shared his own stories of near misses with colliding cars. No doubt it's in the back of every highway worker's thoughts. Deaths and injuries in the work zones, he wanted us to know, are "very frustrating and very angering -- and extremely preventable."

2.) Things are better now than in decades past. Dillman did have good things to say about efforts by the state and construction industry to keep highway workers safe. Data seem to prove him right. Fatal crashes and injuries on Minnesota roads have fallen steadily the past few years and are no where near the years of record deaths and injuries seen in the 1970s.

3.) Distraction kills. Lingering questions about Thursday's crash and whether the driver was speeding into the work zone were answered this afternoon. He was not speeding and MnDOT says the speed limit was lowered from 70 mph to 60 mph approaching the zone.

"MnDOT officials say distractions are the biggest danger in work zones and that motorists should make sure to pay attention to the road and follow speed limits while driving through a construction area," MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunar wrote this afternoon.

Finally, sometimes good things are learned from tragedy. Dunbar this afternoon reports that MnDOT is weighing extra safety measures in construction sites after Thursday's I-35W crash.

Dunbar writes:

Tiffany Dagon, a work zone engineer for MnDOT's metro district, said extra safety measures may be added to construction zones in the wake of the crash.

"One is the use of barriers that we put the workers behind on high speed roads if they're very close to the road," Dagon said. "Another thing we do, again if they're right next to the road, is sometimes a lane closure right next to them to get a lane of separation between the workers and the traffic."

Measures, maybe, that will save workers lives in the future in those dangerous zones.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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