A top legislative priority for contractors becomes reality this Friday when a new law that imposes stiffer fines for speeding in work zones takes effect, but some say the change doesn’t go far enough.
The law, approved in the 2014 legislative session, imposes a flat $300 fine for speeding in road construction work zones and replaces an existing provision that doubles fines in work zones with a minimum $25 fine.
Inspired by a 2011 work zone crash that claimed the lives of two employees of Brooklyn Park-based Egan Cos., the law is meant to make work zones safer for workers and motorists alike.
“It doesn’t matter if you are on a city street, county road or state highway,” said Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kristin Kammueller. “If you are caught going faster than the posted speed through a work zone, you will be charged that $300.”
The law was the No. 1 legislative agenda item for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.
Though road builders praised the steeper fines, some say Minnesota still lags behind other states when it comes to cracking down on work zone speeders and distracted drivers.
Initial legislation included language that would ban the use of cellphones in work zones, as well as a provision that would give police more flexibility to issue a ticket based on reports from flaggers in work zones. Neither made it into law.
Tim Worke, director of AGC-Minnesota’s transportation division, said one thing the association pushed for was allowing police to issue a ticket up to four hours after a work zone flagger reports a violation.
It’s important because “unless you have a peace officer stationed right where the flagger is, you are never going to observe those violations,” Worke said.
School bus drivers have similar authority to report school bus stop arm violations, Worke noted. But the flagger provision was taken out of the work zone safety bill over concerns about profiling.
Road builders testified in favor of the work zone legislation earlier this year, as did the widows of Ron Rajkowski and Craig Carlson, the Egan Cos. employees who were killed in 2011 when a driver crashed into their work zone, as reported by Finance & Commerce in February.
The workers were repairing a cable on Interstate 35W just north of County Road 42. The driver pleaded guilty to one count of careless driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service and a $100 fine.
Between 2010 and 2013, 7,268 work zone crashes were reported in construction areas statewide, according to MnDOT.
Work zone crashes led to 31 fatalities during that same time, including eight deaths in 2013 alone. But not all of the victims were workers. In fact, more often than not it’s the driver who is injured, according to Kammueller.
“You are putting yourself at risk as much as you are those workers,” she said.
Market research conducted by MnDOT showed that signs warning of a flat $300 fine were more effective in deterring speeders than signs that simply say fines double in work zones, Kammueller said.
A $150 fine is fairly typical in other states, though Illinois imposes a $10,000 fine for hitting a worker in a construction zone, according to Kammueller
In Illinois, work zone speeding penalties are $375 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses whether or not a worker is present, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
On the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota’s minimum fine is $80 and workers must be present.
Though AGC-Minnesota didn’t get everything it wanted in the new law, the association sees it as a step in the right direction.
“Speeding and distracted driving in work zones has consequences that alter people’s lives,” Worke said. “And the two Egan Cos. employees that lost their lives – that is the impetus for moving ahead with this.”
Crashes in Minnesota work zones since 2010
11 fatalities; 1,973 crashes
8 fatalities; 1,620 crashes
4 fatalities; 1,935 crashes
8 fatalities; 1,740 crashes
Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation