By Barbara LaBoe
Less than a minute.
That’s all that saved Rob Shepherd as he worked along State Route 3 helping with soil samples on a geotechnical crew on March 19.
Shepherd, a transportation engineer, had just left his work pickup on the road shoulder when the crew heard a semitruck barreling down on them, scraping the guardrail. They were already standing on the other side of the guardrail, but several hit the deck, some rolling down an embankment to get as far away as possible.
“I jumped and closed my eyes, and then hit and tumbled down the hill,” Shepherd said.
Next they heard a “terrible explosion,” Shepherd said, which was the semi striking the pickup and slamming it 150 feet forward into the drill truck. The three-quarter pickup was crushed like a soda can, barely recognizable in the wreckage.
Thankfully, none of the crew was in either vehicle – but the wreckage shows all too clearly the danger crews in work zones face across the state on a regular basis. A few seconds later leaving the truck and Shepherd almost certainly have been killed.
Today marks the beginning of National Work Zone Awareness week as well as our own outreach in Washington. Ceremonies are planned as well as displays to help raise public awareness of the need for everyone to slow down and pay attention in work zones. The remains of Shepherd’s truck will be part of one of those displays, along Capital Way in Olympia. Other displays are planned at several of our regional offices across the state.
Many include 60 barrels or cones – representing the number of WSDOT workers killed on the job since 1959. Countless others have been injured or had close calls such as Shepherd, who was merely going about a regular workday until he was suddenly diving down a bank to save his life.
Sadly, Shepherd’s story is far from unique. Far too many of our workers have had close calls, serious injuries and even deaths in our work zones. It’s hard to find a crew that hasn’t had an injury or numerous close calls.
“I’m so thankful I was out of the truck and none of the crew was hurt,” Shepherd said. “But it’s a good reminder for all of us that something like this can happen in just seconds and just how dangerous it can be on the side of the road.”
And it’s not just workers at risk. Statewide 94 percent of those injured in work zones or backups are motorists, passengers or passing pedestrians.
The cause of the March 19 crash on SR 3 is still under investigation by the Washington State Patrol, and it’s not known what caused the semi driver to leave the road and strike our trucks. That driver was transported to the hospital after the crash, though he was alert and talking when crews helped get him out of his truck.
What is clear, though, is that if Shepherd had taken a few more seconds getting out of his truck he likely wouldn’t be here today. The mangled remains of the truck leave no room in either the front or back seat for anyone to survive. From some angles it’s hard to even recognize it as a truck. That’s why it’s important for everyone on the road to do their part to keep both workers and the traveling public safe. We work hard to ensure safety every day, but we also need the public’s help.
“If people can look at this and think ‘what if that had been a family member of mine or a friend in that crash?’ maybe they’ll all be more careful,” Shepherd said.
This month – and every month – we ask all travelers to remember to:
- Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they’re there for your safety.
- Be Kind – our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways.
- Pay Attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic.
- Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life
Crews work while traffic speeds by just feet or inches away. They are there working to keep all travelers safe, either through repairs or new construction. They deserve our respect and extra attention.
As the remains of the pickup Shepherd was driving shows, lives can be changed or lost in just seconds.