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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Some simple steps to improve highway safety

(Final draft)

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, in engineering, law enforcement, and emergency medical services.”

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A related category where I would like see continued improvement, is for our highway personnel 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 will only encompass a brief period. We already have rigorous safety standards in place to promote 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 he would only be there briefly, set out a handful of safety cones in the vicinity of his boom truck, before rising to work on some power lines. Unfortunately, this was near a blind curve in the road, and a mechanical 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, as they neglected to carefully lay out 3 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 was 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 long-time 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 some workers had 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 ahead, plowed into several vehicles.

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

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