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News / Business / Clark County Business

Changes in roadwork policy will affect drivers but WSDOT says workers have to be kept safe

“They’re going to inconvenience the traveling public, but that’s really too bad.”

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 11, 2024, 2:25pm
5 Photos
Members of the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol gather to talk about work zone safety at the WSDOT Vancouver Maintenance Yard on Thursday morning.
Members of the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol gather to talk about work zone safety at the WSDOT Vancouver Maintenance Yard on Thursday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the wake of rising roadwork zone fatalities, the Washington State Department of Transportation has directed crews to do what’s needed to feel safe — without regard for driver inconvenience.

Roadwork crash fatalities in Washington doubled between 2022 and 2023, despite the construction zone crash rate declining to 1,228, according to WSDOT.

Nearly 800 people were injured in roadwork crashes in Washington last year, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said at a news conference Thursday at the agency’s Vancouver maintenance yard. Ten were killed. Drivers following too close, speeding and not paying attention were the leading causes for the crashes.

Monday alone saw four roadwork crashes around the state, according to WSDOT.

The problem is not unique to Washington, however.

Driver behavior nationwide is getting worse, between speeding and distracted driving, said Mindy McCartt, Oregon Department of Transportation spokeswoman. Roadwork zone crashes are rising in Oregon as well, where the state saw nearly 500 crashes in work zones in 2021 — four resulting in a fatality, ODOT Director Kris Strickler said.

“Until we can get people to really start paying attention and just focus on driving, these numbers are not going to go back down,” McCartt said.

The regional agencies came together Thursday morning to share a unified message before the summer construction season kicks off: slow down, pay attention and drive sober. The news conference precedes National Work Zone Awareness Week.

“The work we do is disruptive. We understand that,” WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar said.

“We cannot keep seeing people being hurt or killed in our work zones,” he added.

The department has long tried to balance mobility and safety, he said, scheduling roadwork to minimize inconvenience to drivers. But now, he’s directed crews to work during the day, take up an extra lane or even close down roads if crews feel it’s needed to be safer.

“They’re going to inconvenience the traveling public, but that’s really too bad,” Millar said. “What I want to make sure of is that the men and women who work for me get home safe at the end of their shift.”

‘Lives at risk’

Since 1950, WSDOT has had 61 workers killed on the job, according to the agency.

“They’re out there working for us — for you — to build and maintain infrastructure that we use on a daily basis to get to our workplaces, our homes and places of enjoyment,” Batiste said. “All the folks who are out there on the roadways doing their jobs deserve to go home safely to their families.”

Carley Francis, WSDOT’S southwest regional administrator, shared the distressing call she received in January alerting her that six crew members were sent to the hospital after a suspected drunk driver crashed into their vehicles on Interstate 5 north of Vancouver.

“The toughest calls we get as leaders are when a worker has been injured,” she said.

Beth Blankenship, who stood beside Francis at Thursday’s news conference, was part of the crew attempting an emergency pothole fix that day. She still suffers physical and emotional trauma from the incident.

“Beth has wanted to get back to work but acknowledges she is afraid about the possibility of being struck again,” Francis said.

Sean Spulniak, an ODOT transportation maintenance specialist, said he’s nearly been run over by a drunk driver, and his co-workers have been hit while in equipment and vehicles.

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ODOT crews regularly see drivers speeding, using cellphones and failing to move over when crews’ warning lights are flashing, Spulniak said.

“Our lives are at risk,” he said. “Highway work is very dangerous.”

Spulniak pleaded for drivers to slow down, pay attention and watch for orange roadwork signs, message boards, flashing lights and traffic control changes.

“We’re trying to make traveling safer for the public. And that requires us to ask you to be patient, attentive and help us go home to our families,” he said.

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