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Driving Through A Construction Zone? Think About Becky

Flagger on the job
Ryan Denham
Becky Slightom of Bloomington on the job Friday, July 6, 2018, during a resurfacing project on Oakland Avenue in Bloomington Township.

Becky Slightom is the person you see at the start of a roadwork zone—the one directing traffic and keeping workers and drivers safe.

She's a flagger, but there's another informal job title she's bestowed upon herself.

“I’m the crapcatcher,” Slightom said with a laugh.

Yes, in addition to putting herself in harm's way every day, the Local 362 Laborers union member has the pleasure of getting attitude from drivers upset that their commute is a few minutes longer because of roadwork.

Another thing Slightom sees are cell phones. A lot of cell phones. Plenty of close calls too.

“I’ve even had a person about run me over. She did not stop. She’s coming down the highway at a fast rate of speed. I had to get in the ditch. I did finally get her stop. She was texting. She had it on the steering wheel and continued to text—after I stopped her! I was looking at her. People sometimes don’t think it applies to them, but it does,” said Slightom, from Bloomington.

GLT visited Slightom last week as she worked a resurfacing project on Oakland Avenue in Bloomington Township, for Rowe Construction. It's one of many projects going on around Bloomington-Normal and McLean County during summer road construction season.

Those who work in the industry say now's a good time to remind drivers that safety around road construction isn't just IDOT's job, or Slightom’s job, or State Police's job. It's everyone's job. 

And if we look at it like a job, let's just say our performance review would be ... not good.

In 2017, 29 people were killed in roadwork zone accidents in Illinois. Most fatalities in roadwork zones are drivers and passengers—not the workers themselves.

And yet 143 road workers died in road construction sites nationally in 2016—the most recent data available—according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The two biggest factors are speeding and distracted driving. As a flagger, Slightom gets a real close look at both.

“Flagging is probably one of the most underestimated positions,” said Tad Myers of Mackinaw, the superintendent at Slightom’s job site. “You usually try to keep the same people on it a lot, because they are professionals at it and do a good job. They’re protecting not only the traveling public but our people too. It’s gotta be someone they can trust with their backs turned to traffic.”

Myers said cell phones are the major issue. That tracks with a State Farm driver survey from 2017, showing a significant relationship between self-reported rates of cell phone use and self-reported number of crashes.

“In that second of distraction, you can get one of our people ran over and not going home that night. It’s definitely scary,” said Myers, also personnel coordinator at Rowe Construction.

Julie Hile from the Normal-based Hile Group does consulting work with companies on safety, continuous learning, and workplace documentation. She's recently worked with clients on driving safety.

GLT asked Hile whether all those public safety awareness campaigns about slowing in workzones—and all those tickets issued by police—had worked. Have roadwork zones become objectively safer in recent years?

“We were making good progress until the advent of cell phones in cars. We have lost ground,” Hile said.

And those 29 roadwork zone deaths in 2017? That’s actually an improvement. There were 40-plus deaths in each 2015 and 2016, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).

IDOT’s Safety Program

“Having those (29 fataliities) was unacceptable, and we continue to strive to have that zero number,” said Juan Pava, who leads IDOT’s workzone safety program.

IDOT’s workzone safety efforts are focused in four areas: education, engineering, emergency services, and enforcement. Enforcement is all those State Police citations. Education is public awareness campaigns.

On the engineering side, Pava said they're looking at data and trends to make decisions, rather than knee-jerk reactions.

“For instance, we have increased the use of temporary rumble strips in advance of workzones,” Pava said. “So if someone’s distracted with their kids in the backseat, they feel their vehicle vibrate slightly and look up to see a sign about slow or stopped traffic ahead.”

"We were making good progress until the advent of cell phones in cars. We have lost ground."

IDOT’s mantra is workzone safety is everybody’s responsibility.

“We want to make sure we all take responsibility for the safety not only of ourselves but others out there. We have to make sure we pay attention when we’re driving.”

Safety Culture

Christina Schulz is a senior performance consultant at Hile Group, which preaches safety culture based on shared accountability and responsibility.

She grew up in the car-centered world of Chicago's suburbs. When she's driving in construction, she thinks of herself as traveling through someone's workplace. She's the interloper, steering a 4,000-pound piece of heavy machinery into someone's office.

“It isn’t our first nature. It’s so easy to get caught up in where you’re going and in what timeframe, but you can teach yourself to broaden that peripheral vision. And you can teach yourself to shift those perspectives. That’s why we argue it’s cultural,” Schulz said.

She said that safety culture can be cultivated even in workplaces filled with cubicles—not orange cones. Companies of all types can offer defensive-driving training, or hold their employees accountable for dangerous distracted driving, she said.

“It’s about helping companies understand the role they can play in sending home a very strong message: ‘We care so much about your safety transiting to and from this workplace, we’re prohibiting (certain things) or not expecting our employees to be so available to us that they’ll pick up a phone call, return a text message, or check their social media while operating a vehicle,” Schulz said.

That State Farm survey from 2017 showed troubling connections between cell phone use while driving and other dangerous behaviors. The greater the number of smartphone activities drivers engaged in behind the wheel, the more likely they were to participate in other risky behaviors like driving under the influence, racing, or failing to wear a seatbelt.

Hile said the brain science behind distracted driving makes the dangers crystal clear. If you're driving with a handheld phone to your ear, you're as distracted or inattentive as someone two times the legal limit for a DUI, she said.

More surprisingly, Hile said driving with a hands-free device is actually twice as dangerous from a distraction standpoint as driving with a handheld device.

“We’ve frequently had to tell our (business) customers, who are very proud of themselves for putting out some sort of policy that says they’re going hands-free, our response is … you’ve actually just put your entire fleet at twice the risk of a vehicular incident,” Hile said.

You can track big summer construction projects on IDOT’s website.

GLT's full story.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.