‘The distraction factor is insane’: Highway administration worker hit at work urges drivers to exercise caution

State Highway Administration employee Ronnie Wright stands behind a mangled attenuator mounted on a truck he was towing last year. He was hit by a passing motorist. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

A year ago, State Highway Administration employee Ronnie Wright’s truck was hit by a pickup truck. While the incident hasn’t changed the way he approaches his job, it’s not something he’s looking forward to reliving.

A facilities maintenance technician based in the Howard County office of the State Highway Administration, Wright performs a variety of jobs — a list that includes signal crew work, paving, and large trash pickup. He has worked for the agency for six years.

On March 29, 2021, a day before his birthday, Wright was driving a dump truck on the shoulder of westbound Route 70 when he was struck from behind by an erratically traveling vehicle.

“I saw car parts flying past my truck, and then the next day, you know, I saw a van on its roof, sliding past my truck,” he said. The van caught fire.

Wright was pulling a truck-mounted attenuator, a pair of aluminum boxes surrounded by a heavy-gauge steel frame. The devices essentially function as a shock absorber on wheels. They are designed to protect workers on high-speed roads.

Wright was thrown against the steering wheel by the force of the impact, although he was uninjured. A colleague in a truck ahead of his grabbed a fire extinguisher to douse the flames.

“It was chaotic, because people were stopping. And or [the pickup] stopped, it was blocking two lanes of traffic.

Motorists drive through a road widening project on Highway 32 in Howard County earlier this month. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, there were 7,704 work zone-related accidents in Maryland between 2016 and 2020, resulting in 46 fatalities and 3,263 injuries.

Maryland law has long required motorists to change lanes or slow down when approaching police and fire vehicles that are on the side of the road with warning lights or flares. The Legislature expanded the state’s “travel” law in 2018 to include service vehicles, disabled cars and trucks, and trash or recycling crews.

Motorists who break the law face a fine of $500.

In April, MDOT and the Maryland State Police launched a campaign urging travelers to slow down, be alert and follow safe driving practices in work areas.

At a press conference near a planned Route 32 widening this spring, Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. said: “If we don’t all do our part, the men and women building these critical highway projects will face dangerous drivers – distracted, multitasking, fast drivers , driving dangerously. – just inches from the 50 workers who work here every day.

Ports said 80% of people killed in work zone accidents are drivers and passengers of vehicles passing through construction zones.

“Walking through a work zone takes time and care,” said Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Col. Kevin M. Anderson. “Often, roadwork zones involve lane changes, reduced speed limits and no shoulders. Combining these road changes with dangerous excessive speeding behavior, following too closely [and] distracted driving, you are almost certain to increase your chances of being involved in an accident.

When a reporter asked Wright to write a safety message for use on MDOT’s overhead signs, he refused. “I couldn’t put what I wanted in there,” he laughs. “I don’t think it would pass.”

He said road workers routinely observe drivers who aren’t paying their full attention to the road. “The distraction factor is crazy,” he said.

“People have to think it’s their family on the road,” he added. “People who are out there on the road, we have family that we want to go home to. We’re just out there doing our job.

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