November 29, 2001

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if you had cars zooming by at 60 mph while you were working in your garden, or if you had to look both ways before you walked from your bedroom into your bathroom each morning? Those are every day practices for many people so I don't suppose too many folks would like to worry about traffic safety as they go about their daily routine. But for highway workers and emergency service personnel it often is a daily risk they must undertake because motorists pay little attention to the men and women standing along the roadways as they motor by.

This issue was brought to my attention first hand last week as I worked with my fellow firemen at an accident scene on Highway 15. I was too busy with the extrication to notice much about the traffic pattern initially, but I was appalled by the motorists' activities following the event. I was lending a hand with traffic and helping pick up the final pieces of the crash on the bridge and I must admit I did not feel safe. More than once I felt the need to take a few steps off the roadway and even beyond the shoulder as I watched the oncoming traffic moving toward me at unsafe speeds.

Maybe they didn't notice the law enforcement vehicles with flashing lights, or the highway crew in their reflective orange coats. Or maybe they just didn't care that it is terribly unsafe to try to travel across a narrow bridge that has been closed to one-lane of traffic while still traveling the speed limit or higher. People - stop and think how you would feel if you were standing there picking up debris while some idiot was driving 50 or 60 mph in a car that he or she pilots just a few feet away from you. I think that would be the perfect punishment for this crime, make the individual pick up trash along a roadway and see how they feel as cars zoom by.

At first I just chalked it up to one or two fools that are reckless or possibly partially blind. However as the evening wore on it became obvious to me that it was more the norm than the exception. At one point I nearly felt the need to grab the highway patrolman and pull him to safety as I saw a pick-up getting ready to pull onto the bridge, without slowing down a bit. The trooper was trying to take a measurement for his accident report and was walking just steps inside the road's shoulder not more than 50 feet from the patrol car that sat on the shoulder with its lights flashing. Still the truck motored on as if it were a typical day and there was no reason even to get over just a little. When you see a man's hat nearly blown off by the momentum of the passing truck, well that vehicle was just too close and going too fast.

The sad thing is that law enforcement had the motorists best interests in mind. It would have been easy to stop all traffic on the roadway until the clean-up was completed a few hours later. Instead, the road was quickly reopened even while the work was ongoing. However if motorists show no more respect to the workers than that, I would suggest in the future that we show them no more consideration than they show to the workers. Shut the road down and let them sit there for an hour, then they may realize that having to slow down a little bit is still much better than not moving at all.

The legal response to flashing lights and sirens is another interesting topic that this particular accident brought into discussion. If you see or hear these particular emergency warnings, it means get the heck out of the way because we are in a hurry to get where we are going. Now it doesn't mean you have to risk personal harm or property damage by swerving into the ditch, but it does make our job much easier if you can slow your vehicle to a safe speed and then pull as much of that vehicle off the road as possible. A particular note of interest here is regarding safety. I know it is hard to plan these things, but if you find yourself in this spot, please pay attention to where your vehicle is. Try not to partially pull off the road at hill crests or other dangerous sites, where your vehicle may force the ambulance, fire truck or police car into an unsafe maneuver.

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