Friday, April 28, 2023

Multiple work zone crashes leave lasting effect on Adam Gonzales

By Tina Werner

Adam Gonzales has seen his fair share of work zone crashes.

Adam has been with our maintenance team out of Lakewood since 2016, repairing potholes and guardrails, cleaning catch basins, mowing and cleaning up litter and graffiti. An overnight shift in August 2022 was no different – at least at first. Adam was stationed in a truck mounted attenuator providing protection for paving crews ahead on Interstate 5 near exit 109 in Thurston County. Little did he know how important that protection would be.

Adam had taken all the necessary work zone precautions – his trucks lights and flashers were on, and all equipment was in place. Still, he kept checking his mirrors to see the traffic behind him and to keep a lookout for his surroundings on the busy interstate. That’s when he saw a driver behind him with their head all the way back, asleep, headed straight towards him and his crew.

“I knew she was asleep,” said Adam. “I honked my horn and immediately tried to move further off the shoulder than I already was.”

But it was too late.

Adam Gonzales, who has been struck in a work zone three times since 2018, tells his story
at our yearly Worker Memorial event in early April.

The driver struck Adam’s truck going more than 70 miles per hour. Adam’s head bashed into the truck’s steering column, causing a concussion. The Washington State Patrol cited the driver for negligence and endangerment. Adam said he’s fortunate to have survived, but he also said if he had not been there with the TMA as a buffer, his crew would have been killed.

“I knew I would have had to tell their loved ones they were gone,” Adam said of his crew. “I am just glad it was me who was struck and not them.”

This is just one of three times someone crashed into Adam in a closed state highway work zone. The first crashes were on State Route 512 in Pierce County while he was doing guardrail repairs in 2018 and again in 2019. The most recent was the I-5 crash in 2022 with the sleeping driver. All three crashes involved a drunk or distracted driver that enter a marked work zone and struck Adam and/or his crew.

So, it’s no wonder why Adam is such a strong advocate for safety in work zones.

“Each crash presents its own trauma, you know,” he said. “The concussions, the back pain, the ongoing injuries.”

Adam’s truck mounted attenuator was parked along the shoulder of southbound I-5 in Thurston County, providing protection for night crews doing pavement work when it was crashed into.
Fortunately, the truck – and Adam – did their job and kept the crew safe.

Safety is priority one

It’s a scary reality that our road crews can never let down their guard when on shift.  Their office isn’t in a cubicle or in an office building; they work just inches away from people traveling 60 miles per hour – or faster. Their lives are literally on the line and it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t had a near miss or injury.

And it’s not just physical injuries. Like many people involved in traumatic experiences, Adam still struggles with feelings of depression and anxiety after the crashes – and with the ability to “turn it off,” he said. He continues to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and regularly has flashbacks to the crashes. Far too many of our workers do.

“I am always on edge after being hit,” said Adam. “I constantly wonder if I am going to get hit again.”

Gov. Inslee named Adam Gonzales Washingtonian of the Day during our annual Worker Memorial event in Olympia in early April.

Another part of Adam’s continued recovery includes sensory deprivation tanks with 80 pounds of salt to help him relax and “shut it off” as he puts it.

“The crash itself is one thing – but the safety reports, the after care, is something else entirely,” he said.

The injuries were rough, but Adam noted how much he appreciated the Human Resources, Safety and Maintenance supervisors who all reached out and checked on him after his most recent crash. That spoke volumes.

“We are a family,” said Adam. “We all look out for each other.”

Improving work zone safety

Despite all we do as an agency, there’s always more work to improve safety – including reminding the public of their role in keeping both our crews and all travelers safe.

For our part, we’re making some work zone adjustments after seeing risky, dangerous and deadly driver behavior increase the past few years. Nationally, work zone crashes are on the rise; in Washington the overall number decreased but we’ve seen alarming increases in the numbers of serious injury and fatal work zone crashes. It’s vital to protect our crews, so we’re making some adjustments, such as closing more lanes during work, creating a longer work zone for additional buffer space or shifting some work from night to daytime when visibility is better and driver behavior is less risky.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee also signed a bill authorizing automated speed enforcement cameras in work zones. During that ceremony Adam was declared Washingtonian of the Day by the Governor in recognition of his bravery and public service.

One of the displays near our headquarters building in Olympia during our Worker Memorial event displays 60 traffic barrels – one for each of our workers who have died in work zones since 1950.

Adding cameras to work zones is another step in improving work zone safety and one supported by our agency and our union and industry leaders. And by people like Adam – who says the new law is a great relief. We are in the early phases of designing the law and determining speed thresholds and fine structures, but the cameras will go live on July 1, 2024.

Help us keep Adam – and everyone – safe

Adam says he wants to go home at the end of his shift to see his family. Increased safety precautions help give him some peace of mind that will happen.

Probably the most important reason for Adam: his 11-year-old son, Jeffrey.

Adam’s son Jeffrey on a family trip. Adam says Jeffrey is his No. 1 priority and he wants to be able to hug him when he comes home
after every shift.

That’s why we’re also asking the public to help us keep themselves and road crews safe – we need everyone, every day to look out for themselves and others around them. One second’s distraction, one decision to drink and drive or simply going too fast and being reckless can have lasting effects on many others.

So please – for Adam, the rest of our crews and everyone traveling on our roads – do your part to slow the trend of serious crashes. Stay alert, slow down, secure loads and keep an extra eye out for everyone like Adam who is out there working to keep us all safe.