By Joe Palic
Work zone fatalities are usually broken down into two categories; those from occupational accidents involving highway workers, and those from vehicle crashes involving motorists traveling through the work zone.
I don’t mean to trivialize the risks to highway workers because ours is an extremely dangerous occupation, but FHWA statistics consistently show that nearly 90% of all work zone fatalities involve motorists rather than highway workers. My experience closely reflects the FHWA statistics. I can only recall 2 fatalities involving highway workers, but well over a dozen involving motorists.
The most common work zone crash I’m familiar with is where a driver runs into the back of a vehicle that has either slowed or stopped in the work zone. In many of these crashes the driver will claim to have not seen either the entire series of advance road work signs, or the vehicle in the middle of the road that they hit.
It’s sobering to realize that these drivers had not been focused on driving for some distance, and I believe they would very likely have hit anything that was in front of them during that time. It’s also sad that the work zone usually catches the blame for their crash.
I’ve had up-close looks at many work zone crashes. So far I’ve been very fortunate that the crash survivors have always been extricated from the wreckage and moved from the scene before I’ve arrived. However, there have been times where I’ve experienced the unpleasantness of watching the Jaws of Life cut vehicles completely apart to recover bodies. Wrecks are ugly.
I wish all motorists were more aware of how dangerous driving can be. If they were, I’d bet they would stay more focused on the task of driving, especially while in a work zone. It might just save their life.

Joe Palic is the KDOT Area Engineer in Marion

Approach work zone safety as if your own life is on the line

By Alan Farrington

As a young Construction Engineer working for the Kansas DOT back in 1987, I experienced a job site incident that would forever change my outlook on the importance of everything related to work zone safety and traffic control.
Contacted by the Kansas Highway Patrol at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I was informed that there had been a double fatality on one of my projects. I was asked to come to the project site immediately. With little detail provided, and not thinking of asking after having been woken up in the middle of the night, I got dressed and headed out. The project had only begun a few days before, so there wasn’t much of a chance for the traffic control signing and devices to have fallen into disrepair. Driving to the site, I wondered what could have happened.
The project involved the reconstruction of an urban 4-lane divided Interstate, so traffic was carried head-to-head on one half, separated by concrete safety barrier, while construction took place on other half. Soon after traffic was diverted to one side, construction began on the replacement of a large triple barrel concrete box culvert running under the half being reconstructed.
As I approached the sea of emergency vehicles’ flashing lights, I realized the incident was on the closed section of the roadway at the culvert excavation. The excavation was about 75 feet across at the top and 15 feet deep. There were three vehicles in the hole; two that appeared to have tried to stop and dropped in on the near side and a third that had almost made it across the excavation, crashing into the far side a few feet below grade. It was that third one that resulted in the fatalities.
As I was briefed by the KHP Sergeant as to the events that led them to find the vehicles and I inquired about the fatalities, he pointed to the ground. I saw that I was nearly standing on the body bag of one of the victims. The other had been taken by ambulance but expired shortly thereafter. I realized immediately this was REAL. The seriousness of the situation was reiterated in the hours and days after when I was bombarded with inquiries by the Highway Patrol, local media, national media, District staff, Headquarters staff and attorneys.
Because proper traffic control was in place, yet the unfortunate parties decided they’d have a little “fun” on the closed highway (alcohol was also a factor), this incident fortunately didn’t result in any law suits. However, the experience instilled vigilance in my approach to traffic control setup, maintenance, inspection and documentation that I’ve maintained ever since; even after leaving KDOT to work on the contracting side of the work. You can never idiot-proof every possible circumstance, but as long as you approach work zone safety as if your own life is on the line, you’re likely to give it a little more attention and thought.

Alan is with Wildcat Construction Co., Inc. in Wichita


By Delane Newkirk
Having worked at KDOT for almost 34 years, I can say I have seen a lot traffic control issues.
From near misses, to did you not see the road work signs, to what in the world are they doing. I have seen people drive through freshly shot oil, drive completely around the work zone on the grass shoulder, stop and turn around at the work zone and go back the other direction. I could go on and on.
When I first started flagging, it seemed like the people you had to watch out for was some of the elderly. They would sometimes drive a car length or more past you and then stop. When you walked up to the vehicle to speak to them, they were just sitting there still looking over the steering wheel straight ahead. Did you see me standing back there with the stop and slow sign? Most would say yes, but you had to wonder why they drove clear past you before they stopped.
Later when flagging, it seemed like there were always those people you would get stopped in the work zone who didn’t have enough time to be stopped. They were running late, or had an appointment they had to be on time for, or just simply, I don’t have time to be waiting here. It will just be a few minutes, you would say, and they would act like you had just ruined their day.
Lastly, in more recent times I have to say that the most distracted drivers are the ones that are using their cell phones as they come into our work zones. When you get them stopped, some are still on the phone. Gee, is our work zone disturbing your phone call? May I have your attention for a minute?
We can put up all the road work signs, cones and arrow boards according to our work zone policy and have it all measured out to the nearest foot. But all of that sometimes does not get the attention of a distracted motorist. It all comes down to that person who is behind the steering wheel. They have to concentrate on their driving and be aware as they come into our work zones.
At the end of the day, I want to see all of my people back to the shop safely. The traveling motorists need to help us make sure that happens.

Delane Newkirk is the KDOT Subarea Supervisor at Great Bend


By Casey Simoneau
I was on duty a few years back and had just gotten in my patrol car when I heard a highway worker had been struck and killed. I went to the location of the crash and tried to assist where needed. It was an extremely difficult scene to view.
Any event where a person has been killed is difficult to work. The difficulty is compounded when someone is killed while doing their job on the side of the road. Troopers and highway workers are at the mercy of the traffic that is surrounding them. Highway workers depend on signs, cones, law enforcement and other personnel to keep their work area safe around them. On this particular day none of those safety measures worked.
While at the scene of an incident like this you find yourself wondering “why did this happen?” “What if a law enforcement officer would have been in the area to stop this person?” “How can this be avoided next time?” These are all questions that are constantly running through every law enforcement officer’s mind as well as highway workers.
When a person is killed along the side of a highway, the aftermath is felt all over the local community, the law enforcement community, and also with their co-workers. But even more so, it is even harder for the families of those involved. Many people do not believe that an incident of this capacity could ever happen to you, however the fact is that it could happen to anyone. Due to the profession that we chose, law enforcement and road workers have a greater chance of being killed on the side of the road than anyone else.
What happened on that day will never be forgotten by the many personnel that were working that day. It will never be forgotten by the community, nor will it be forgotten by the workers in the construction zone that day. That incident not only directly impacted his family, but it also affected numerous communities. Each day, I drive by the area and I see the flowers sitting in the ditch next to the area of where the road workers lost their life. It is a constant reminder of that tragic day and I always hope that an incident like that never happens again.
With this said I would like to remind people to be cautious of the highway workers working on the roadways. People tend to get frustrated with work zones and all the signs, cones and equipment that come with them, but the workers are there to make your highways safer for you and me.
Please slow down and be mindful that each of the highway workers is doing their jobs and they have families that they would like to go home to at the end of their shift. Through these great people, we as Kansans get the opportunity to enjoy one of the best roadway systems in all of the Unites States. The Kansas Highway Patrol would like to say THANK YOU.

Casey Simoneau is a Technical Trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol


By Rex E. Flinn
KDOT work zone set-ups have become safer through the years with the advent of the high intensity sheeting on signs, the use of cones to separate the traffic from the work zone and crash attenuators to protect the work area. This being said, it is still the responsibility of both the traveling public and the highway workers to be aware of what is happening around them.
The traveling public needs to realize with the coming of spring, the road work signs and workers will become more prominent on the highways. This is also the season for travel and farm work to become more noticeable. We as state highway workers try our best to not disrupt travel schedules by keeping delays to a minimum. We have all heard before how we don’t do any work on this road until harvest time. This is where they need to realize that their busy time also coincides with the best time for us and contractors to be working. Nobody can get much done when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
I remember two close calls I have had while flagging in work zones. The first happened on a clear morning while an overlay on the road was in progress. While flagging, I had a semi-truck and trailer approach blowing their air horn and not appearing to slow down. Fortunately, I had no other traffic held at the time as I stepped out of the lane of traffic. The truck blew by my stop sign and another quarter-mile down the road through the tack oil we had on the road preparing for overlay. The truck at this time turned out of the oil and proceeded to the other end where he stopped at the flagman and told him the reason he didn’t stop was because he didn’t have any brakes. Don’t you think this would be something to check before they were needed?
The second was again while flagging on an overlay project. I had two vehicles stopped when I saw another vehicle approaching at a high rate of speed. I began waving my stop/slow paddle over my head in an attempt to gain their attention. As they kept coming, I was trying to figure out which was going to be the safest escape route when they suddenly swerved around the traffic I had stopped. The car (I still remember it was from Ohio) turned a complete circle in the road as it went by where I was standing, coming to a stop facing me. As they drove back by me, the comment that was made was they must have been sleeping because they hadn’t seen any signs or the traffic that was stopped until they noticed the wildly waving of the sign.
The next time you are approaching a work zone, be thinking – what can I do to make this a safe working environment for the workers because we are out there to make the highway a safer place for you.
As we begin a new season, let’s all strive to make it a safe and enjoyable one for all. This can sometimes be accomplished with a smile and a friendly greeting. Come to work with a positive outlook and you will be surprised how many nice people you may meet.
Here’s wishing everyone a safe and productive construction and maintenance season.

Rex E. Flinn is the KDOT Area Superintendent at Mankato