McLean County Road Crews Plead For Safe Driving After Fatal Crash
Highways are safer for construction workers than they used to be, but a McLean County labor leader said a recent fatal crash shows they still aren’t safe enough for those who make a living in road construction.
Eric Penn, business manager for Laborers International Union of North America Local 362, said he had just finished speaking with the widow of Larry Williams, the 59-year-old Bloomington man who was struck and killed in a work zone in Gridley. Williams leaves behind five children between the ages of 4 and 15.
“He’ll never come home again. I never want to have that conversation ever again if I can help it,” Penn said.
Williams was a flagger for a road project when a driver struck and killed him while speeding through the work zone along U.S. Route 24 on Tuesday morning, police said. Penn said flaggers are the first line of defense for construction workers. Their job is to encourage drivers to slow down and pay attention, something drivers don’t always do.
“We see it all, people eating, shaving, (applying) makeup, reading, all sorts of things,” Penn said. “The fines are there, but when these types of situations happen, it’s never enough.”
The state recently stiffened penalties for work zone violations. Disobeying traffic controls with workers present can lead to fines of $25,000. Hitting a construction worker carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years and a $25,000 fine.
The driver in the Gridley crash was issued tickets for speeding and for failure to yield to a construction worker.
Penn, who thinks the penalties aren’t strong enough to serve as a deterrent, said he’s willing to support jail time for a first-time offense if that would make work zones safer.
“If that’s what it takes, then yes, but I don’t know for sure if that’s conceivable, or not being a first-time offense,” Penn said.
Penn said the challenge is having enough police officers on work zone patrols.
Despite fears about construction workers safety, Williams became the first flagger in McLean County zone to die in four decades.
Penn said after that Sept. 13, 1979, crash on Interstate 55 that claimed the life of Gerald Smith, laborers protested in support of better safety protocols.
“They shut jobs down all across the area, saying we refuse to go to work until something was done about it,” Penn said. “At that point, they changed some issues as far as how it was enforced in work zones.”
At the time, he said work zone enforcement was lax. The state has since added barrier walls and flashing arrow signs and it now mandates flagger safety training.
Penn’s uncle, John Penn, who was the union’s business manager at the time, led the protests.
According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 168 people were killed in work-zone crashes from 2015 to 2019; four of those killed were road workers.
Police also share risk. Illinois State Police report six state troopers have died in traffic crashes while on duty over the last decade.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect changes in Illinois' work zone enforcement laws.
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