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Crash Victims: Move Over For Road Workers

Work Zone Crash
Jesse King
Assistant bridge maintenance engineer Ron Robbins was one of the several work zone crash victims to speak at the Guilderland Service Area Monday.

Ahead of the summer travel season, victims of work zone crashes are encouraging drivers to move over and slow down for roadway workers. 

Employees of the Thruway Authority, state Department of Transportation, and State Police stood beside the busy Thruway and a damaged police vehicle to tell their stories on Monday. At the Guilderland Service Area on the New York State Thruway, Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll says roadway workers and emergency responders risk their lives “day in and day out” to keep drivers safe.

“We have a very simple message today and every day, actually," says Driscoll. "And that’s that distraction can wait. Whether it’s a phone call, a text, you’re fiddling with the radio – whatever it is, it can wait.” 

Just a few months ago, Driscoll says a tractor trailer struck several maintenance vehicles and injured four Thruway employees during routine maintenance on the Berkshire Spur. All of the crew made it out alive – partially due to crew member Jay Case, who tackled a coworker out of the vehicle’s path. Case says they’re lucky they survived.

“As a result of the tractor trailer coming into the work zone, my foot was broke, and I still have flashbacks of that incident," Case admits. "We aren’t there to ruin anybody’s day or slow down traffic – we’re just real people with families. I have three kids and a wife, and I’d like to go home at the end of the work day to see them.”

Work Zone Crash
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
A damaged troop car is a reminder to move over for law enforcement and emergency personnel, too.

According to state Department of Transportation Executive Deputy Commissioner Ron Epstein, two DOT employees have been killed this year by drivers who failed to move over. He says these crashes, like the one that killed DOT employee Matt Howe, are particularly painful because they are preventable. 

“I wish I could say that Matt’s passing was just an isolated event," Epstein notes. "But I cannot. Matt is one of 56 DOT employees that have actually been killed in the line of duty since DOT was created.”

Ron Robbins is an assistant bridge maintenance engineer who narrowly survived a crash on Route 9P by Saratoga Lake a few years ago. While installing plastic delineators to mark a one-lane work zone on a bridge, Robbins says he stopped against a guide rail to avoid traffic. He says he thought he was safe – but one car, instead of driving across the bridge at a given signal, barreled straight toward him.

“My legs were between the guide rail and car. I jumped up at the last second, and the car clipped my legs and threw me over the guide rail backwards. The car continued on and hit the guide rail, and then just sped off. As I was laying on my back, I looked at my feet and my legs wondering what I was going to find, and thank God I was OK. I got up and the driver was gone.”

State Police Troop T Commander Major Doug Keyer says speeding is the number one cause of fatal accidents in New York, with distracted driving causing the highest number of physical injury crashes. He says both can keep a driver from moving over – and that not only threatens roadway personnel, but state troopers as well. Trooper Thomas Hannigan was assisting a disabled car near the Thruway’s Kingston exit in March when a tractor trailer suddenly crashed into his vehicle. 

"I felt the impact of the car, I saw the truck go down the side of my car. [It] hit the car in front of me, causing the guy to go over the guide rail. He had a female passenger with him that was outside the car — she got pinned up against the car. My airbags deployed, side curtain airbags," he recalls. "I'm watching her as she's like, looking at me, yelling for help, and I can't get out of the car because the door's smashed in, and now, at this point, my car is up against the guide rail." 

Hannigan says the occupants of the other vehicle also survived the crash. But he adds it’s not the only crash he’s seen, calling distracted driving “senseless.”

“I thought I was dead that day, I thought I was dead. I have a family to go home [to], we all have families to go home [to], and there’s just no reason for it," he says. "Everybody should move over, slow down if you see lights – any lights, whether it’s police officers, tow trucks, any type of emergency lights. Even a disabled vehicle on the road — if you see them, give them room.”

Commander Keyer says State Police will be on the lookout for distracted drivers over Memorial Day weekend.

“We’re gonna be engaging in our traditional Memorial Day traffic enforcement. We’ll be paying attention to distracted drivers, speeders," Keyer announces. "We will pay particular attention to those who do not move over. So if you have the ability to do so, please do it.”

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."