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Thursday, January 19, 2012

A simple step to improve highway safety

It’s outstanding that in 2011, motor vehicle fatalities in Idaho dropped to their lowest rate in 50 years. Idaho Highway safety manager Brent Jennings remarks, “We believe that we can attribute this significant decline in fatalities to the educational programs, the partnerships that we have in education, engineering, law enforcement, and emergency medical services.”

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A category in which I would like to see continued improvement is for our highway managers, workers and utility contractors to encourage each other to position highly visible “Workers Ahead” signs well in advance of the actual roadwork and from all directions leading up to the job, even if it looks as though their tasks there will only encompass a brief period. We already have rigorous safety standards in place to encourage this; however, here is where I would like to make a personal observation on the subject:

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Back in the mid-90’s on Highway 75 north of Hailey, there was a case where a utility contractor, perhaps thinking that he would only be there briefly, set out just a few safety cones in the general proximity of his boom truck to work on some overhead power lines. Unfortunately, this was near a blind curve in the road, and a metal support-leg from his work vehicle was protruding into the highway 1½ feet. A southbound motorist did not notice this obstruction in time to react properly; and suddenly veered, causing a horrific head-on collision. This killed a young man named Ken who was traveling north. Upon investigation, local authorities revealed that the company doing the utility work did not follow the law by carefully laying out three sets of “Workers Ahead” signs in specifically staged areas and a court found the contractor partially accountable for the damages.

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Before Ken’s life was taken in that wreck, I had been fortunate to become briefly acquainted with him. I learned that he was a hard-working family man with two small children. And I could sense by the deep engaging way he gazed into people’s eyes, that he was a salt-of-the-earth type of individual who was genuinely interested in whatever you were up to. Sometimes in the evenings, I would hear Ken practicing tight with his band, blanketing Old Hailey with a friendly atmosphere of soft jazz notes.

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Therefore, as Ken was a pillar of the community, for months afterward, many folks held some outrage against the contractor partially responsible for the crash. A local newspaper reported in depth on the various safety protocols workers should follow and word spread wide to all roadmen that they had best follow these rules. However, after a few months slipped by, I noticed that some workers started slacking off again from their diligent safety duties, such as not using flaggers in places where they clearly should have, or working late with insufficient lighting. Over the years, I’ve made mental notes of these irresponsible acts, sometimes seeing workers placing themselves in conditions even more dangerous than the one that killed Ken.

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Then last year, another acquaintance was killed in a worker-zone crash on a different stretch of Highway 75. In her case, questions have arisen as to whether the workforce there posted enough advance warning, before a truck driver unsuspecting of the stopped traffic, plowed into several cars.

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With these crashes, I like to believe my friends were something better than statistics and hope that something good can come out of their tragic cases. Although, we will always face danger on the highway; I implore our dedicated workers in the concerned spirit of Ken to do everything possible to make us safer for 2012 and beyond.

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