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Work Zone Close Calls

True stories from PennDOT staff about some of their harrowing experiences while they're out in the field.

Our folks work day in and day out to keep our roads and bridges safe for Pennsylvania residents and those who travel Pennsylvania roadways every day. Whether it's tackling winter weather, repairing bridges, replacing important infrastructure or performing routine maintenance, our team is working for you. It's very important for you to pay attention in a work zone, because a moment of distraction can lead to very serious consequences and even to the loss of someone’s life.

Here are some of the very scary close calls our staff has been through, in their own words or through secondhand accounts.

Valerie Notarione, Equipment Operator

District 1, Erie County

"Two years ago we were working and a flagger stopped traffic. A gentleman looked at the flagger and started yelling at him and ran the work zone. She was able to radio to me and we stopped traffic from coming in the other direction just in time. A couple more seconds and he would have driven into oncoming traffic. He could well have hit another vehicle or hit one of us trying to avoid hitting another car. He was cited by the police for that.

"I love my job and there is nothing I would rather be doing, but it is dangerous. People don't realize how dangerous it is. Almost every one of us out there have had to jump off of the road to avoid getting hit at some time or another because people are not paying attention while they are driving. And we have had people who didn't get out of the way fast enough.

"Drivers have to slow down and pay attention while they are driving — that's the big thing.

"There is a lot of construction and work on the roads and I understand that people get frustrated, but if they don't follow the rules at a work zone they are endangering our lives and their own lives.

"We have families like everyone else and we love our families. Some of us have kids, some of us are taking care of elderly parents or other family members. We want to go home to our families at the end of the day just like everyone else."

 

Mindy McFetridge, Equipment Operator

District 1, Venango County

"Last year, I was flagging for a crack-sealing crew in Venango County when I had to jump over the guiderail. A car was coming and it sure looked like he didn't see me and wasn't going to stop. He did stop eventually, but it didn't look like he was going to.

"We have all had close calls in work zones, but one unusual incident I remember is the woman who fell asleep at our work zone.We have all had close calls in work zones, but one unusual incident I remember is the woman who fell asleep at our work zone.

"I was flagging ... in Venango County on a ditching operation and this car was approaching the work zone. It was coming slowly, but it didn't look like it was going to stop. I thought for sure it was going to drive into the work zone, but finally it did stop. Then, when it was time to turn the stop paddle and let cars go, that car didn't go. I looked in and the lady had fallen asleep. She was an older lady and she had fallen asleep at the wheel in front of my stop paddle. I woke her up by tapping on the window and suggested that she pull over — off the road. She did pull over for a while, then drove off.

"There have been lots of times when people have driven past the stop paddles at work zones. What they usually say is 'I didn’t see you. You blend in,' even though we have stop paddles and there are cones and signs. People are just not paying attention. They are putting our lives and their own lives in danger by not paying attention while they are driving."

 

Bob Nicklas, Transportation Construction Inspector

District 2, Clearfield County

The unthinkable happened on Dec. 6, 2013, when Bob Nicklas was inspecting a section of posted highway. While in the vehicle identifying damage to the roadway, a vehicle struck him from behind, pushing his vehicle off the road and over an embankment. He was very shaken and received minor injuries. Although Bob's work zone was properly posted — LED hazard lights were activated and he had a ½ mile of sight distance behind his vehicle — he couldn't prevent the crash.

Unfortunately, this is just one of the many reports PennDOT employees are able to share.

Bob Nicklas is a father, hunter, mentor and PennDOT employee. He thoroughly enjoys pheasant hunting with his bird dogs and, most of all, mentoring young licensed hunters who appreciate the same passion for pheasant hunting. Bob and his brothers have taken numerous children hunting over the years, who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.

"I love to teach the kids how to be responsible hunters and share in their enthusiasm for hunting," Nicklas said.

He is a father who has mentored his children in hunting and shared his passion for the great outdoors. Bob continues to work as a Transportation Construction Inspector in the Posted and Bonded Roads Unit for District 2.

 

Dan Frits, Highway Foreman

District 3, Northumberland County

"One time when I was working we were doing some guide rail work. Not only did we have our signs out with our flags, but we also had flares at the beginning of the work zone, three flares as a matter of fact before our flagger. I was up the road working, all of a sudden I heard brakes and a bang and looked back to where the sound came from. Our flagger was leaving the edge of the roadway. The first car had stopped inches from him, but a second vehicle had hit the back of the car that was stopped at the flagger. Our flagger really had nowhere to go, I mean he had an escape route, but it happened so fast. The flagger said 'I really didn't know what was going on at first.'

"I came around the car to ask if the driver was OK. He was an elderly man and he said he had never seen the signs, the road flares, the flagger, or the stopped vehicle in front of him. That day could have had very different results had the driver pushed the other vehicle into our flagger.

"When you are driving through a work zone, we are not robots, we're not replaceable, and we are real people. If you hit one of us, the inattentiveness of your driving could have an irreversible consequence.

"We are out there working, trying to make our lives better, not only for us but for the traveling public, the people of Pennsylvania. That is what we are here for, to make sure it is safe for your family to get where they need to be going, but you need to be watching for us while you are traveling from point A to point B because we are somewhere in between, most of the time."

 

Scott Gillette, Highway Foreman

District 4, Pike County

"[Last year] my crew and I had a lane closed on Interstate 84 in Pike County for a mill and fill operation. At the end of the day, we were moving [equipment] to the starting point. Traffic was moving slowly up the hill when a tractor-trailer hit the back of one car and pushed the car and the truck into the work zone, coming within 100 feet of [our equipment]. Although nobody was injured, it was a stark reminder of how quickly a crash can occur when motorists are not alert. The state police were working in the work zone so they were on the scene quickly."

 

Francis Baines, Equipment Operator

District 4, Luzerne County

"I was flagging one day when a SUV was approaching. The vehicle did not appear to be slowing down and began 'crowding' the white line. As the vehicle approached past the line of stopping, I took a step back, just seconds before impact with my paddle. When they realized they hit my sign they finally hit their brakes and stopped approximately 75 feet past me into the work area. The motorist backed up a short distance, looked down at the destroyed paddle on the road, looked back up at me and drove away. The vehicle sustained right front end damage, including a missing headlight."

 

Bruce Moyer, Equipment Operator

District 5, Berks County

Luckily, Bruce Moyer has never experienced a work zone near miss in his more than 20 years at PennDOT; though he did experience a situation where his truck was rear-ended during a winter event in Berks County. Even though he was not hurt, the other driver suffered injuries and his or her vehicle was totaled.

Bruce has been a girls' softball coach for Oley High School for more than 25 years, and looks forward to continuing to do so do.

 

John Conrad, Bridge Foreman

District 5, Berks County

John Conrad, Berks County bridge foreman, has been with the department for more than 34 years. He is responsible for bridge maintenance work as well as traffic control during bridge inspections. Over the last few years, John and his crew have had several close calls in their work zones.

On at least three occasions in the last two years, the crash trucks utilized for the work have been struck by motorists. No PennDOT workers were injured in these incidents, but if it wasn't for the crash trucks creating a buffer for PennDOT employees, things could have been much worse.

In his previous position, John notes that he was actually hit by a vehicle in the late '90s. The incident occurred on an entrance ramp and was struck by an older, inattentive driver. He was struck by the vehicle's mirror and the tire ran over his foot. Luckil,y he experienced no serious injuries.

 

Tim Schultz, Highway Foreman

District 6, Bucks County

"[Last year, my crew was performing base repair.] Despite a very visible flagger utilizing her stop paddle, a motorist decided that he no longer wanted to wait for her instructions to proceed. In a very irate manner, the motorist sped around two cars in front of him and the flagger, and entered the active work zone. In his frustration, the motorist drove very abruptly and quickly past some of the crew members.

"Taking my responsibility as foreman seriously and wanting to protect my crew, I stepped out into the roadway waving my arms and yelling for the motorist to stop. The motorist proceeded toward, me stopping directly in front of me before accelerating and bumping my knees, causing me to fall onto his hood. He then continued to drive through the remainder of the work zone with me on his hood. It was not until my crew came to my assistance and used equipment to block the motorist from going any further that he stopped. I was lucky to walk away with only bumps and bruises."

Note: Local police were called to the scene to deal with the driver.

 

Lou Carotenuto, Highway Maintenance Foreman

District 8, Lancaster County

Lou Carotenuto is the foreman for a paving crew in Lancaster County. Last year, he and his crew were finishing a patching operation. He was just about 5 minutes away from finishing the day's work and heading home for the weekend, and was standing on the closed lane of the road where the patching had been done.

As he was working near the center of the road, raking the loose asphalt from the patch, the other side of the road was open to traffic allowing motorists to get by the operation. A flagger permitted a pickup truck hauling a horse trailer to drive through the work zone.

"I was close to the middle of the road when I heard one of my crew member's yell, 'You're going to get hit!' That's when it happened. I saw the pickup truck with wide mirrors and just missed it, but the trailer it was hauling was wider than the pick-up. The wheel of the trailer grabbed my knee and pulled it down. The next thing I knew there was a wheel track over my pant leg and knee. The driver kept going."

Lou's crew members yelled and the driver then stopped, looked back, called out that he had to deliver the horses, and drove on. He returned about 15 to 20 minutes later, after delivering the horses.

Lou stood up and tried to regain his composure, but collapsed to the ground. When the driver with the horse trailer returned to the scene and asked Lou if he was OK, Lou made sure that he communicated to the fellow that he was not.

The driver said, "I knew I was too wide to get through." Lou asked, "So why did you." The driver was silent.

Lou was taken to the hospital emergency room. He had a partial tear in his medial collateral ligament (MCL) and a depressed fibula. Fortunately, the tear healed over time. However, additional damage to his knee that didn't clear up required surgery months later, at the end and physical therapy.

"I've been working on the road for 30 years," Lou says. "It's horrible out there. People's behavior is getting worse and worse. We need to stop this. Just recently, for example, in dealing with flooding, we placed barricades to close the road and protect drivers from driving into running water, but some motorists ignored them and just drive around the barricades."

Lou reflects on the incident and the safety of his crew. "I wasn't complacent before. I'm very safety oriented," explains Lou. "I shelter my guys and make sure they're safe. I'm glad it was me who was hurt last summer. I would have felt really, really bad if it had happened to one of my guys. Nowadays, I'm super, super cautious."

 

Mike Peterman, High Maintenance Foreman

District 8, Adams County

Mike Peterman's maintenance crew averted a potential tragedy last spring while replacing a drainage pipe in Adams County.

During a flagging operation. the crew directed traffic. Most motorists slowed down and stopped in line, but one motorist didn't stop. The driver of a sedan swung his vehicle around a slowing fuel tanker truck.

"Our flagger started screaming and called out a warning on his radio to the crew about the approaching vehicle into the work zone," Mike explained, and one of our equipment operators pulled out his dump truck across the road to block the car, forcing the driver to stop. When we approached the driver, we could smell alcohol on his breath." The crew called the State Police, and a trooper was there within 15 minutes. The subsequent search revealed alcohol and drug paraphernalia.

"Our guys all stepped up and handled the situation very well, and helped prevent what could have been a tragedy. The driver could have hit any one of our crew; he could have hit our equipment, or hurt himself. We're all very fortunate."

 

Beth Jamison, Highway Foreman

District 9, Huntington County

Beth Jamison, highway foreman, experienced an intrusion by a cyclist in Huntingdon County. The cyclist did not pay attention to the Work Zone Ahead signs, and ignored directions given by a flagger. He crashed his bike and was injured. The crew called an ambulance and stayed with the cyclist until help arrived.

"It is important for all motorists to obey the work zone signs," Jamison said. "No matter what kind of vehicle you have, from a bicycle to a truck, when our flagger tells you to stop, please stop. Your life could depend on it."

 

David Bocz, Maintenance Foreman

District 10, Indiana County

Maintenance crews often perform their work surrounded by moving vehicles on bustling roadways.

"As a Foreman at PennDOT, my job is to maintain the safety of myself and my crew while performing work on the roadway," David Bocz, maintenance foreman in Indiana County, explains. "We all want to be able to go home every night to the people who are important to us.

"The last thing I want to do as a supervisor is to call the family of one of my crew to tell them their loved one has been injured or will not be coming home. Personally, I want to go home each night to my wife and two young children.

"A work zone is set up to keep the employees safe as well as the motoring traffic. The flaggers control the work zone, allowing the crews to focus on the task. We rely on the motorists to focus on their job of driving safely through the work zone.

"Two things I see in work zones are speeding and distracted driving — especially making phone calls and texting. Drivers need to slow down to a safe speed and pay attention. If they are focused on their phone, they are not focused on the work zone and keeping away from the workers so that there is no chance of an accident. We are focused on our job, and the motorists need to focus on their job of driving safely and not on making phone calls or texting. If drivers are focused on their phones, they are not focusing on our employees and their safety."

 

Sheldon Phillips, Highway Foreman

District 11, Lawrence County

Sheldon Phillips, a foreman in Lawrence County, has been a PennDOT employee for nearly three years. In that short amount of time, Phillips has experienced nearly a half-dozen near misses.

"The most memorable experience was [one time] when the crew was performing shoulder-cutting activities when a large box truck ran the stop/slow paddle held by [a flagger], and an unmarked Pennsylvania State Police car was directly behind the individual that ran the paddle. The state trooper instantly cited the individual for the violation," Phillips said. "The most frequent time I experience near misses is when motorists don't obey the stop and slow paddle."

Because of his experiences, Sheldon takes work zone safety very seriously. He carries a hand-held radio with him at all times to effectively communicate with his crew, and regularly reminds them to be on the lookout for motorists who aren't paying attention.

When Phillips isn't working as a foreman he loves riding his motorcycle and has had it since 2008.

 

Greg Hillsman, Acting Foreman

District 12, Greene County

Several years ago, acting foreman Greg Hillsman was a member of a bridge-flushing crew performing work on bridges in Greene County. He was one of six workers cleaning dirt and gravel left over from winter off the bridge deck. The flagger observed a tractor-trailer approaching the bridge. With no traffic coming from the opposite direction, the flagger gave the trucker the SLOW side of the paddle and indicated to the driver to slow down.

As the driver passed the flagger, he steered his truck straight at Greg and a fellow worker. Running away from the truck, he threw his shovel up in the air, the two men jumped out of the path of the truck and up onto the wall of the bridge. The driver then continued over the bridge and out of the work zone.

The Pennsylvania State Police were contacted and the driver was pulled over 3 miles down the road from the work site. The driver was arrested and charged. The shovel that Greg had thrown in the air as he ran to escape was lying on the trailer.

Upon inspection by state police, several chains holding down the load on the truck had been snapped by the momentum of the truck veering back and forth as the driver steered toward the workers.

When the trucker appeared before then local magisterial district judge, he pleaded guilty and admitted that he had steered his truck toward the workers on purpose. He apologized, and said that he had just had a bad day. It could have been a very bad day for everyone.

When Greg was asked what contributes to drivers not paying attention when approaching work zones, he said two things: drivers distracted by cellphone use and too many work signs being used improperly at gas well sites. He continues to be amazed at the number of drivers who appear to be texting when approaching a work zone causing them to suddenly apply their brakes in order to stop. He feels drivers in his area are desensitized to work zone advance warning signs due to the misuse of these signs at entrances to gas well sites.

Greg lives in Greene County, enjoys hunting, landscaping, and spending time with his two children.