Wreath laid for lives we sped past

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Mitchell Young hasn’t forgotten the day he had his close call with a motorist.

Young is the Resident Engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s Whitfield Project Office. The office deals mostly with construction in Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties — making sure that when tax dollars go out to the low bidder that that bidder does the job without cutting corners.

As part of the job, he and his crew often find themselves putting out barrels, cones and signs mere feet away from speeding tons of metal and plastic.

Mitchell Young diagrams a dangerous incident in a work zone.

Young remembers standing with some coworkers on the side of I-55 in Ridgeland. They were right on the wedge that separates exiting traffic from the rest of the interstate. And it was quick — other motorists probably didn’t even notice.

But Young hasn’t forgotten it. He watched as a car moved like it was going to take the exit off the interstate. At the last moment, the driver decided not to exit there. Swerving back onto the Interstate, Young remembers seeing the car hurtling towards him.

“For a second there, they are going 75 miles an hour right at us,” Young says. “They weren’t that far away. They weren’t in the travel lane or the exit lane. It was scary.”

Road construction and maintenance crews have always had problems with people not slowing down in work zones. But recently the ubiquity of texting while driving has had a multiplier effect on the dangers workers like Young face each day.

Young is married, and in July, he and his wife are expecting their first child. They agreed to keep the baby’s sex a surprise.

“I kind of want to find out, but she’s overruling me!” Young says.

Young says that his wife knows about the dangers he faces at work. Sometimes they get brought up.

“She’s mentioned some times that it’s scary,” Young says. “She knows what we are doing out here. And what can happen.”

Despite everything, Young still finds a way of being nonchalant. He points to the workers who are on site everyday.

“Generally it’s the engineering technicians that spend the majority of their time out here checking everything,” Young says. “I’m not in this situation everyday, all day like some of these other guys.”

Each fluorescent vested worker that a driver passes has family or friends or at least hobbies. And every time there is a close call, they come close to losing it all.

“People don’t realize how close you are to damaging someone’s life — to taking someone’s life. You can be feet away before you realize it,” Young says.

Across West Street from Mississippi’s State Capitol Building, there is a black monolith surrounded by a square of shrubs. The monument was erected outside the Department of Transportation’s headquarters.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

MDOT’s Executive Director Melinda McGrath speaks at Wednesday’s wreath laying ceremony at the fallen worker’s memorial.

Forty-four names are engraved there in the black granite — each signifying a person who died in service of the state’s transportation system. A glance under the “2010” section, there are two names, Leon Sims and Tyler Kilsby.

Seven years ago, the Sun Herald reported that the two were struck by motorists while shoveling sand on an icy section of Highway 11 north of Lumberton.

“Both of them were dedicated to MDOT,” Deborah Kilsby Amador, the mother of Tyler Kilsby, told WDAM TV. “They enjoyed MDOT and the employees, they were like a family.”

Sims was 43 when he was killed. Kilsby, 25. Just two years younger than Young is now.

The names are arranged on the monument in three columns. The first two stretch from top to bottom listing the dead. The most recent additions to the list, Henry Butler, Jr. and Ricky Daniel Murrah, are under 2014. Beneath their names, a grim and empty space waits for more.

On Wednesday, MDOT held a wreath laying ceremony to honor the sacrifice each of these workers made to the state’s transportation system. The ceremony took place in recognition of Work Zone Awareness Month.

“Until you have stood next to the travel lane and (felt) those vehicles whizing by anywhere from 70 to 90 miles an hour, you do not have any appreciation for what these state employees do to keep the roads safe for you and your families,” MDOT’s Executive Director Melinda McGrath said.

“It’s really inexcusable because every single person that lost their life — it was due to human error,” McGrath said. “It was another driver being distracted, passing out or whatever it was that caused them to lose control of their vehicle and hit your loved one within a work zone.”

Mississippi was fortunate enough to not have had any deaths and only twelve motor vehicle related highway worker injuries in 2016.

MDOT

Even when all safety precautions are taken, workers rely on drivers to stay alert.

The Center for Disease Control reports that between 2003-2014, 1,435 workers lost their lives at road construction sites. Excluding 2005, a peak year, fatal work-related injuries at road construction sites average 115 per year nationwide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics list highway maintenance workers as among the most represented in work-related fatalities.

Between federal money and the dwindling revenue that Mississippi’s fuel tax brings in each year, the Mississippi Department of Transportation is putting money toward safety.

Every four years, MDOT releases their Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), which details the department’s planned transportation improvement activities and expenditures in Mississippi. The STIP shows where MDOT is committing money. For the 2017-2020 planning period, MDOT is committing almost $80 million in revenue towards statewide safety.

In many ways, technology is making roads safer than they’ve ever been for motorists and maintainers. Last year, MDOT released a series of videos that explored different infrastructure innovations they hope will help save lives: cable barriers, continuous flow intersections, j-turns, flashing yellow arrows, and rumble strips to name a few.

But to some extent, technology is limited in its capabilities to keep workers and motorists alike safe.

“If we can get people to slow down and stop texting, I think we are going to be in good shape,” Young said. “I’m just not sure if we can make that happen. It’ll take people caring about workers.”

Young said that despite all the dangers of the job, its something he believes in and wants to do.

“There is a lot of risk. But in a way, working for MDOT is a service job,” he said. ‘You are working for the state, generally for a lot less than you would be making somewhere else.”

You’ve got to want to be here,” Young said. “When we are taking your tax dollars, we’ve got to be good stewards of them. I think you see that in the people you have at MDOT. Good people who want to do a good job.”

As part of Work Zone Awareness Month, MDOT offered these tips in hopes of safer roads:

  • Stay alert! Look for reduced speed limits, narrow driving lanes and highway workers.
  • Pay attention. Work zone signs will tell you exactly what to expect ahead.
  • Merge early. If drivers merge as soon as they see the signs, traffic will flow more smoothly.
  • Slow down. If you’re speeding, you may encounter slowed or stopped traffic within seconds.
  • Don’t tailgate. Maintain a safe distance on all sides of your vehicle.
  • Plan ahead. Expect delays and allow extra travel time. Select an alternate route if you are running late.
  • Slow down when approaching a work zone at night. Visibility can be difficult due to the glare of oncoming headlights. Slowing down and proceeding with caution will allow for everyone to stay safe.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

State Highway Patrol officers carry a wreath to the MDOT fallen worker memorial.

The names of the 44 men who died in service of the State of Mississippi’s highways:

1951 – Lawrence H. Davis
1955 – Albert E. Enis
1959 – Richard H. Tisdale
1960 – Henry R. Martin
1961 – Grover L. Entrekin and Daniel E. Ladner
1964 – Alfred H. Mizell
1967 – Carl A. Smith
1968 – Jacob F. Chambers and Ralph Davis
1970 – Wilton E. Lang
1973 – George Killens and Ernest Saucier
1975 – Roy C. Jackson
1976 – James M. Newell
1977 – Arter I. Huddleston
1979 – Edward B. Reves
1980 – Clayton Johnson and James R. Lowery
1982 – Robert K. Pauilihau
1987 – Robert L. Evans and Warneal Roberts
1988 – James Wright and Jimmy C. Weatherall
1990 – Neil Thornton and Franklin L. Gilbert
1991 – Chester A. Berryman
1993 – William F. Brown
1997 – Justin H. Edwards
1998 – Albert M. Mullican and David R. Boykin
2001 – Lamar Magee,  Lucious Harris, James D. McDaniel, Sr., and Stayce M. Wilkinson
2003 – Johnny C. Cooper and James T. Marsh
2007 – David Lee Jones
2009 – Samuel C. Clark
2010 – Tyler R. Kilsby and Leon Sims
2012 – Hollis Anderson, Jr.
2014 – Henry Butler, Jr.  and Ricky Daniel Murrah
  • Jeff

    No word on a memorial for motorists killed due to errors by road workers or due to broken, mis-marked or otherwise defective roads, bridges, barricades, drainage, debris or signage.