Monday, April 8, 2019

Horrific crash a stark reminder of need for work zone safety

By Barbara LaBoe

Less than a minute.

That's all that saved Rob Shepherd as he worked along State Route 3 helping with soil samples on a geotechnical crew on March 19, 2019.

Shepherd, a transportation engineer, had just left his work pickup on the road shoulder when the crew heard a semitruck barreling down on them, scraping the guardrail. They were already standing on the other side of the guardrail, but several hit the deck, some rolling down an embankment to get as far away as possible.

"I jumped and closed my eyes, and then hit and tumbled down the hill," Shepherd said.

Next they heard a "terrible explosion," Shepherd said, which was the semi striking the pickup and slamming it 150 feet forward into the drill truck. The three-quarter pickup was crushed like a soda can, barely recognizable in the wreckage.
The crushed pickup is smashed up against a drill truck with the semi cab resting on top of it.

Thankfully, none of the crew was in either vehicle – but the wreckage shows all too clearly the danger crews in work zones face across the state on a regular basis. A few seconds later leaving the truck and Shepherd almost certainly have been killed.
Depending on the angle, the remains of the crushed pickup from the March 19 work zone crash are barely recognizable.

Today marks the beginning of National Work Zone Awareness week as well as our own outreach in Washington. Ceremonies are planned as well as displays to help raise public awareness of the need for everyone to slow down and pay attention in work zones. The remains of Shepherd's truck will be part of one of those displays, along Capital Way in Olympia. Other displays are planned at several of our regional offices across the state.
60 barrels line the entrance of our Northwest Region headquarters in Shoreline, one of several
regional displays for National Work Zone Awareness Week.

Many include 60 barrels or cones – representing the number of WSDOT workers killed on the job since 1959. Countless others have been injured or had close calls such as Shepherd, who was merely going about a regular workday until he was suddenly diving down a bank to save his life.

Sadly, Shepherd's story is far from unique. Far too many of our workers have had close calls, serious injuries and even deaths in our work zones. It's hard to find a crew that hasn't had an injury or numerous close calls.

"I'm so thankful I was out of the truck and none of the crew was hurt," Shepherd said. "But it's a good reminder for all of us that something like this can happen in just seconds and just how dangerous it can be on the side of the road."

And it's not just workers at risk. Statewide 94 percent of those injured in work zones or backups are motorists, passengers or passing pedestrians.

The cause of the March 19 crash on SR 3 is still under investigation by the Washington State Patrol, and it's not known what caused the semi driver to leave the road and strike our trucks. That driver was transported to the hospital after the crash, though he was alert and talking when crews helped get him out of his truck.

What is clear, though, is that if Shepherd had taken a few more seconds getting out of his truck he likely wouldn't be here today. The mangled remains of the truck leave no room in either the front or back seat for anyone to survive. From some angles it's hard to even recognize it as a truck.

That's why it's important for everyone on the road to do their part to keep both workers and the traveling public safe. We work hard to ensure safety every day, but we also need the public's help.

"If people can look at this and think 'what if that had been a family member of mine or a friend in that crash?' maybe they'll all be more careful," Shepherd said.

This month – and every month – we ask all travelers to remember to:
  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety
  • Be Kind – our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways
  • Pay Attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic
  • Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone's life
Crews work while traffic speeds by just feet or inches away. They are there working to keep all travelers safe, either through repairs or new construction. They deserve our respect and extra attention.

As the remains of the pickup Shepherd was driving shows, lives can be changed or lost in just seconds.


Coug66 said...

Followed delivery of this heap of scrap to the east campus this morning. Had no idea what was so slowly being transported under the covering tarp but had a chance to view it later, on my return home. WSDOT's "highwayman" and crew had their guardian angel working overtime on that one.

pete.d said...

Man, thank goodness that wreck didn't hurt anyone. But...

"So the state DOT is asking everyone on the road to slow down ... be kind ... pay attention ... and stay calm."

Here's the thing: we see these articles all the time. There's always some wreck, often someone dies, and pretty much always preventable. The causing driver wasn't doing what they were supposed to, and instead was doing something they weren't supposed to.

But, articles don't change behavior. Anyone reading the article and receptive to the requests, they are most likely already driving safely. Most people reading the article and thinking "well, thank goodness I'm a great driver", are sorely mistaken but could never be convinced otherwise. It's pretty much guaranteed that they tailgate and they speed, and there are better-than-even-odds that they run stop signs and red lights, fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists, fail to signal turns, and a host of other dangerous driving practices.

There are only two reliable avenues to improving motor vehicle safety: education and enforcement. And of course, in Washington we have essentially none of either. Most moving violations are never even noticed by law enforcement, and the rare ticket doesn't cost enough to motivate a change in behavior. You can kill someone with impunity using a motor vehicle, as long as you're not drunk, because prosecutors only want to take on the trivially easy cases. Continuing education for drivers? There's not even a hint of that, not even a pretense that anyone in the state cares about something like that.

Until the powers that be get serious about implementing addressing the utter lack of these two critical components of safety, nothing is going to change. You can plead with the drivers all you want, but those pleas will fall on deaf ears.

Will said...

This is a very important point that was made about “Education”! There’s got to be more accountability! More “Laws” doesn’t fix anything!

WSDOT said...

We agree education is important. Part of the reason we do public outreach like this is to help spread the safety message to residents.
In addition, we worked with the Department of Licensing to add work zone safety and other items to the new Washington Driver Guide.
And, our partners in the Washington State Patrol are conducting a distracted driving emphasis this month to spread the message that drivers need to focus on the road, not electronic devices.
We hope using a variety of approaches and messages helps reach as many people as possible.

pete.d said...

I don't have any quarrel with what education WSDOT tries to do. I appreciate it very much. But it's a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Likewise these "emphasis patrols". Law enforcement is so understaffed, that even during such patrols, the vast majority of violators are overlooked.

I commute to work on bike. Taking just this afternoon's ride as an example: I was passed by a driver who used the bike lane to go around me while I was making a left turn, creating a hazard to the cyclist who was ahead of me in the same bike lane; two drivers in a row failed to yield as I crossed at a crosswalk; a third driver made a right turn directly across my path as I was moving through an intersection.

Unfortunately, this is typical (i.e. at least one such event happens during each direction each day of my commute, and often there are multiple, such as today), and local law enforcement shows no interest in following up on documented reports, never mind actually monitoring the situation generally (I use cameras on my bike, and have submitted video evidence to local law enforcement for multiple such events, and they have not once made any sort of follow up with the driver involved, never mind issued a citation).

Your efforts to educate are, as I said, very much appreciated, but WSDOT is just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and unfortunately neither WSDOT nor the other organizations have the resources to do the job that's needed, and many of those other organizations actively express disinterest in making an effort.

EnviroSci said...

I disagree with the naysayers here. I am a safe driver and do slow down for work zones. As an environmental scientist, I also may be parked on or off roads to take samples or photos. The article and photo reinforce to me the awareness that I probably shouldn't linger in or near the vehicle. Thank you for that reminder.

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