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Illinois Road Workers Fear for Their Safety

Fri September 26, 2003 - National Edition
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RIVERDALE, IL. (AP) Highway construction worker Joe DiGiovanni was happy with his $29 an hour until Sept. 15, when he saw co-worker Tina Ball mowed down by a car.

Since then he’s been thinking.

”I’ve thought about next year maybe doing something else, because it’s not worth it,’ the 23-year-old Chicago Heights man said.

It’s a common theme these days on Illinois blacktop, where 24 people have died in construction zones this year. Five of those were construction workers and a sixth was a tollway worker walking between toll booths, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Nationally last year there were 1,181 fatalities in construction zones, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The Federal Highway Administration reports that more than 80 percent of such fatalities involve people riding in the cars.

DiGiovanni doesn’t have much to say about Ball’s accident. It happened quickly, and he and other crew members had to scramble to block in the driver’s car with dump trucks so he wouldn’t flee. There was little time for horror.

But in the aftermath, the laborer has been keenly focused on the cars whizzing by his south-suburban Chicago work zone.

”That sign says 45, but they’re doing 50 to 60,’ DiGiovanni said. ”We know we have a dangerous job, but if people would slow down it would be a lot better.’

The state has tried, boosting the fine for work zone speeding from $150 to $200 this year and erecting signs written in a child’s scrawl that carry messages such as, ”Slow down. My mommy works here.’

But construction season remains hazardous in Illinois. After jumping from 17 fatalities in 1999 to 38 in 2000, deaths among motorists and workers in construction zones have remained roughly steady. There were 36 in 2001 and 31 in 2002, Transportation Department spokesman Chris Schwarberg said.

Less than a week after the accident that took Ball’s life, Gov. Rod Blagojevich called for steeper fines: $500 for speeding in a construction zone and $500 for reckless driving. Repeat offenders would pay at least $1,000.

The governor also appointed a task force of transportation officials to review safety procedures and recommend changes for work zones by Thanksgiving.

In Ball’s death, 41-year-old Thomas J. Harris of Chicago was ordered jailed without bail because of four previous DUI convictions and a blood-alcohol level that police said was twice the legal limit. He is scheduled for a Sept. 29 court appearance on a charge of aggravated DUI in the death of another. The charge carries a sentence of up to 14 years.

Angela McGuire was Ball’s friend and fellow flagger for contractor K-Five on the I-57 construction job. She said she keeps reliving a conversation they had a week before the accident — when Ball was telling her what to expect from her upcoming wedding and married life.

That topic makes her wonder, as DiGiovanni does. Is the job she loves for the sunshine and physical activity really worth the hazard?

McGuire’s fiance and mother don’t think so, she said. ”My fiance never wanted me to go to work the next day,’ she said. And her mother started calling to check on her every hour. ”I’m a grown woman, but she makes me carry my cell phone,’ she said.

”You know what? There’s always school,’ McGuire said.

The 27-year-old flagger from Whiting, IN, stood behind a concrete barrier urging motorists to slow down as dump trucks entered traffic last week. That’s good duty. Some days the crew works on stretches where closer contact is necessary, and only a plastic barrel separates her from unpredictable drivers.

As much as she is scared, she’s mad.

”We never see any state troopers out here,’ she said. And as for the drivers she flags, ”They don’t even look at us.’

Illinois Department of Transportation engineer Mike Sterr, who oversees one of two segments on the 13-mi. I-57 project, said two troopers are paid to work overtime patrolling the project at all hours.

The crews have switched from blaze orange vests to fluorescent green so they won’t blend in with heavy equipment, he said.

”We strive for safety, but there are certain accidents that are hard to protect against, especially when you’re dealing with an intoxicated driver,’ Sterr said.

The state is posting more signs to raise awareness, Sterr said.

One contract oversight worker, Cheryl Salaiz, said the signs could be even starker.

”I think we should put up signs that say, ’Slow down. You’ve just killed two of us,’ she said.

The Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association put up a billboard near the crash site showing a child who loses a father to a speeder. Just beyond it is a billboard advertising gin, with the slogan, ”Control the night.’

”You can’t work the night,’ Salaiz said, though some must at times.

”That’s when you’ve got the drunks and the sleep-deprived drivers,’ colleague Greg Dieter agreed.