Thursday, April 20, 2023

Work zone crash has lingering effect on contractor

By Angela Cochran

The brave people who work on our roads have a lot of stories to tell. Unfortunately, many of them are scary stories.

Anyone who has experienced a crash on a highway knows that traveling in a vehicle that weighs a literal ton or two can be dangerous – for the driver, the passengers, and anyone around them. Throw in an 80,000-pound semi-truck with a fully loaded trailer, and you have the potential for a catastrophic event. Now, imagine you are standing in the middle of Interstate 5, not protected by all the safety features of your vehicle – and it’s your job to be there.

Cindy Nelson, a traffic control supervisor for Granite Construction, has been involved in multiple work zone crashes that leave lingering affects.

Cindy Nelson is a traffic control supervisor with Granite Construction, one of our contractors. Her focus is to ensure the safety of the road crews and the traveling public in work zones. She has been doing this for 20 years on our highways. She usually works the night shift – she likes it, but said she notices people tend to drive faster that time of day. Cindy’s office is a work zone protected by a Truck Mounted Attenuator, or TMA. These TMAs are designed to cushion the blow of vehicles crashing into them and keep roadworkers from losing their lives.

It’s tough work, and an incident that happened several years ago still haunts her. She and her crew were working a Friday night shift setting up lane closures on I-5 in Shoreline near the King County line as part of a concrete panel replacement job. As she was pulling drums off a truck to mark the lane closure, a fully loaded semi struck the TMA that was there to protect her. Both trucks flew past her before she even knew what was happening. The TMA went forward on the shoulder. The semi went into the ditch, up the embankment, and crashed into the noise wall. Someone’s house was just behind the wall and could have been demolished if the wall hadn’t stopped it.

“Had we not had that TMA there, I would not be talking to you today,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Cindy took the next couple of nights off and even when she did return to work, she says she remained shaken by the incident for a while.

About a year later, Cindy experienced another near miss in her work zone. The details are astounding. It happened in 2016 when she was working on northbound I-5 in Mount Vernon near Starbird Road. The crew was in the middle of putting up signs for a single left-lane closure with a reduced speed limit of 55 mph. All of a sudden, she heard, “Cindy, I’ve been hit!” It was her TMA driver. A Toyota Tacoma truck had sped past all of the warning signs, zig zagging through traffic, and slammed into the TMA so hard it went under the TMA and hit the back dually wheels. Fortunately, the TMA driver had the instinct to steer away from Cindy’s truck, which was right in front of it, likely saving her life. The driver of the Toyota had to be cut out of the truck and airlifted to the hospital. The Washington State Patrol determined he was impaired at the time.

The Toyota truck (left) crashed through a work zone and into a truck mounted attenuator (right) that fortunately was in place to protect crews.

These crashes make Cindy wary and extra cautious. She praised her employer, Granite, for providing counseling services and what is called a “safety stand down” where the whole crew gets together and talks after an incident. Cindy said they have also added additional crew members as a safety precaution. Her crews work on a buddy system with one person acting as a lookout for dangerous drivers.

So what does Cindy want all of us to take away from these terrible experiences?

“When you see the orange signs, please slow down,” she said. “If it was your family member out there working, how would you feel? Slow down – we are just out there doing our jobs.”