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County commissioners focus on road construction safety
State Senator of the 15th District Janis Ringhand and 45th Assembly State Representative Mark Spreitzer, second from right, get a feel for what separates workers from vehicles on a daily basis after speaking with Green County Highway Commissioner Jeff Wunschel, Iowa County Commissioner Craig Hardy, Lafayette County Commissioner Tom Jean and Green County Deputy Brian Dillon on Friday about National Work Zone Awareness Week. The event, which began Monday, is focused on making drivers more aware of road workers and the annual fatalities that are a result of inattentive driving. (Times photo: Bridget Cooke)
MONROE - Area county commissioners began National Work Zone Awareness Week early to host a candid discussion with 45th State Assembly Representative Mark Spreitzer and 15th District State Senator Janis Ringhand about the dangers road workers face due to inattentive driving.

Green County Highway Commissioner Jeff Wunschel sat down Friday with Lafayette County Commissioner Tom Jean and Iowa County Commissioner Craig Hardy to talk to Ringhand and Spreitzer about the annual fatalities and 1,110 injuries reported from nearly 3,000 accidents in 2016 along roadway construction.

"It makes me shudder to think we'd have to tell a wife someone killed her husband because they weren't paying attention," Jean said. "A plastic cone is the only separation. That's not going to stop them."

Ringhand noted the effect one accident can have on a family, sharing the story of a friend who had died while working on a construction crew in Dane County.

Part of the awareness week, which began Monday, is to inform public drivers of how to better control their vehicles in a work zone. Nine deaths were included as a preliminary figure in reports by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation last year. From 2011 to 2015, nearly 50 people died as a result of crashes at the site of roadwork throughout the state.

"There's nothing between us and death other than three feet and a center line," Wunschel said. "And there's some guy, you know, shaving."

Along with deputy Brian Dillon of the Green County Sheriff's Department, Wunschel, Jean and Hardy said they have seen drivers doing anything from applying makeup to reading newspapers to driving with their knees in order to take video of crews working. Spreitzer and Ringhand both expressed surprise and dismay while listening to the anecdotes.

Cellphone distractions are especially troublesome for workers. According to a study conducted at the University of Utah titled "The Science of Distracted Driving," people who use mobile devices while driving are four times more likely to be involved in a crash.

Jean said officers like Dillon help alleviate some of the danger because when red and blue lights are flashing, drivers slow down, but drivers are less likely to adhere to orange signs indicating they should drive at a reduced speed.

Spreitzer and Ringhand both inquired as to how they might help with safety needs along roadways. Wunschel said a law passed in October that prohibits drivers from speaking on a handheld cellphone while in a work zone, with fines beginning at $40.

Hardy pointed to legislation both representatives could support once it is introduced at the state level. It would allow flag holders to report drivers who do not slow down. There would be three components required of workers reporting, including the license plate number, description of the vehicle and details of the incident. Ringhand and Spreitzer expressed interest in considering that type of legislation. Ringhand said while meeting with road workers, she has been asked to evaluate all legislation relating to traffic speeds "because it's their life, their livelihood."

Wunschel said the safety awareness week focuses on not just laws and citing figures but the willingness of individuals to adhere to take the time to consider those workers around them.

"We can make all the public awareness and legislation we want, but ultimately it's up to them," Wunschel said. "We need to change driver behavior."