2017-05-18 / Life in Leelanau

Distracted drivers pose increasing threat to construction crews

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


LEELANAU COUNTY Road Commission workers are more and more having to jump out of the way of speeding motorists and drivers who just aren’t paying attention. LEELANAU COUNTY Road Commission workers are more and more having to jump out of the way of speeding motorists and drivers who just aren’t paying attention. Mike Mack was flagging traffic last week for a crack sealing operation the Leelanau County Road Commission was doing on Lake Shore Drive when he nearly got hit by a passing car.

“I thought he was going to run into the back of our pick-up truck,” Mack said. “So I made a last minute dive into the ditch.”

The driver saw Mack at the last second and swerved, just missing the truck before coming to a screeching halt.

That driver did apologize profusely, said Mack, a crew leader.

But more often than not drivers yell at workers, flip them the middle finger, or just keep on going.

“At least three times a week guys are going into the ditch because they don’t know whether the driver is going to stop,” said Mack, who has been with the Road Commission for about four years.

Mack, of Lake Leelanau, said the number of drivers who just aren’t paying attention is on the rise. He said he sees a lot of them looking down, presumably at their phones.

“Multiple times a day people are slamming on their brakes at the last minute,” Mack said. “I just think people are so preoccupied any more and to them we’re an inconvenience. I honestly don’t know.”

Dan Wagner, managing director of the Leelanau County Road Commission, said his road crews have been having almost daily encounters with drivers who are speeding or are distracted for one reason or another, whether that’s changing the station on the radio, talking on the phone or even texting.

Wagner said there were three recent incidences during when workers had to scramble to get out of the way to avoid getting hit.


JAIME GLEASON, who is with Team Elmers, directs traffic on the first day of an M-22 upgrade that is expected to take all summer. JAIME GLEASON, who is with Team Elmers, directs traffic on the first day of an M-22 upgrade that is expected to take all summer. “It’s getting to be a daily thing,” Wagner said. “I don’t recall this many incidences last year.”

Wagner said a driver last year went around a flagger where road work was being done on M-72 and drove right back into the closed lane. That and other incidents have prompted crews to keep the flaggers closer to the workers to prevent someone from going around them.

That keeps lane closure down to a bare minimum of 500 feet or so instead of more than a mile, Mack said.

Still, some drivers get so irate it triggers a call to 9-1-1 dispatchers.

“People are more and more stressed and they’ve got something electronic in their face at all times,” said Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich. “They’re tense when they’re at home and they’re tense when they’re driving.”


DRIVERS ARE asked to behave during a $4.8 million project to upgrade state highway M-22 from Duck Lake Corner to Thoreson Road started on Monday and is expected to continue through the end of August. DRIVERS ARE asked to behave during a $4.8 million project to upgrade state highway M-22 from Duck Lake Corner to Thoreson Road started on Monday and is expected to continue through the end of August. The frustrating part is that the people who complain about road work are very likely the same people who complain about potholes, Borkovich said.

“People are angry when there’s a pothole and ‘why doesn’t someone fix it?’” he said. “So the Road Commission fixes it and people yell at them because they’re blocking a lane.”

Borkovich advises drivers to slow down and exercise some caution over the summer because in northern Michigan there’s a limited time when roads can be repaired.

Wagner said there are three signs for drivers as they approach a work site, as well as a flagger at each end directing drivers to stop or to proceed slowly.

It’s difficult for Mack to believe drivers can’t see them. In addition to signs, the trucks are bright orange with flashing lights on top and workers wear yellow reflective vests. Mack said he also wears a bright yellow T-shirt and sweatshirt.

Wagner points to two workers killed last year in other parts of the state. A 47-year-old man was killed in March 2016 while patching potholes in Detroit. He and another worker, who was seriously injured, were hit from behind by another Wayne County public works employee in a truck.

And in February 2016, one road worker was killed and another injured on M-131 in Wexford County when a man driving a semi-tractor trailer crossed the fog line and hit their parked truck and a lighted arrow trailer. The workers were out of the truck working on a highway sign when they were struck.

“If drivers don’t change their habits, it’s only a matter of time before someone here gets seriously hurt,” Wagner said.

Workers try not to do complete road closures while working, but that may be what it comes to, Wagner said.

“It’s inconvenient for the drivers, obviously, but it’s safer for the worker,” Wagner said.

According to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration Work Zone Management Program, the most common causes of worker fatalities in recent years were runovers or backovers, often by dump trucks, which accounted for 48 percent of deaths; collisions between vehicles and mobile equipment, 14 percent; and workers being caught between or struck by construction equipment and objects causing 14 percent of deaths.

In all, 119 road construction workers were killed across the country in 2014, the latest year statistics are available from the FHA.

Nobody has been seriously injured here, but Mack said even filling potholes can get pretty dicey with drivers flying by at 65 miles per hour.

“It doesn’t make for a pleasant day out there,” he said.

Road construction worker fatalities in Michigan:

2014 — 119*
2013 — 105
2012 — 133
2011 — 122
2010 — 106
2009 — 116
2008 — 101
2007 — 106
2006 — 139
2005 — 165

Source: Federal Highway Administration Work Zone Management Program *2014 is the last year stats are available.

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