By Sage Hill
As a Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper assigned to the Turnpike, you might expect my story to involve an accident that I personally worked. While it’s true that I have worked many horrific crashes, my personal involvement in this piece doesn’t place me at the scene of one. Let me explain.
On July 1, 2014, I was working a voluntary overtime day as part of federally funded program to enhance roadway safety during major travel holidays. Pretty early in the shift I noticed KTA maintenance crews were busy painting new roadway lines and stripes just north of the Oklahoma state line. Throughout the morning and early afternoon I stayed in the area so motorists could observe a patrol unit close to the crews, and I stopped several cars for various violations.
Later in the afternoon I was in a line of slow moving traffic passing the paint crew when I noticed a vehicle coming up from behind them very fast. The maintenance personnel were in the right lane painting, while multiple conspicuous warning signs and flashing lights directed traffic to slowly pass in the left lane. I looked at my own speed, under 40 mph, and then checked the vehicle I had been watching with radar. I was terrified by when I saw it was going 76 mph, and still in the right lane screaming up behind the maintenance vehicles.
“Unbelievable,” I thought to myself. How in the world could this guy not see all the flashing lights, warning signs, and other traffic that had slowed and moved to the other lane? As I paid closer attention, I thought I saw something in his hand above the steering wheel.
I continued to watch and observed no change. My radar gave a solid tone of 76 mph as the car was now only a short distance from the back of the rear truck in the consist of work vehicles. I was unable to warn the maintenance crew, and a very unusual sense of helplessness struck as I realized there was literally nothing I could do to change what I was seeing. Nausea began to settle into my gut and I took hold of my radio mic, preparing to place the request for additional help that I was sure I would need.
Then, with what I still believe were literally inches to spare, the vehicle jerked to left lane, narrowly missing the maintenance truck. The tone on my radar unit heaved and the display told me it had suddenly decreased speed in order to not strike the rear of the car in front of it. Swaying movements within its lane told me the driver was still trying to regain complete control after the sudden jerk to the other lane. As we passed the line of maintenance vehicles, I made an effort to calm down. Even though I was disturbed with what I had just seen- I would still need to be courteous when I stopped the driver of the vehicle.
Once we reached a safe spot past the work zone, I slowed to the shoulder and allowed the car to pass before turning on my red and blue lights to stop him. When I walked up, I saw a young man that was out of breath and had trembling hands. I was actually pretty pleased to see that he understood the gravity of what had just taken place. After making sure he was okay, I asked him what had happened. He was unable to construct a concise sentence due to his excited mental state, but nodded toward his phone that had been thrown to the other side of the car. I prepared a citation for failing to yield to a roadside maintenance crew, and soon he was on his way after assuming responsibility for over three hundred dollars in fines and the knowledge that he nearly killed himself.
The next morning I was drinking a cup of coffee in my home preparing for a day off when I saw something miserable on the news: A young woman had rear-ended a KTA paint crew in the very same area, and had lost her life as a result. Images from the scene depicted her destroyed car, and my fellow troopers that worked the crash said they strongly believe that texting was a contributing factor. All I could think about was how close the guy I stopped had come to suffering the same fate.
Driving is something many of us take for granted. We do it routinely for so many different reasons; it’s just another facet of our everyday lives that can seamlessly blend with the others. The same is true for our almost inexplicable need to be “connected” to the rest of the world. We simultaneously use our phones while we carry out countless other daily tasks, so it’s easy to allow it into our world while driving. I’m pleading with you – don’t. As a single 24-hour period in July can prove to you, the results can be horrendous.
I hope you never make us write that ticket. Even more, I hope you never make us work that crash.
Sage Hill is a Master Trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol – Troop G (KTA)