Maintenance worker Mike Surber was part of a Missouri Department of Transportation crew patching potholes in mid-January when a vehicle slammed into the back of his truck.
“When he hit me, he pushed me over 100 feet,” said Surber. “If I had not been there, my crew would have been hit.”
Surber, who was injured in the crash and spent two months on light duty, told his story at a news conference Monday as part of National Work Zone Awareness Week.
At the news conference, which was held at MoDOT’s Kansas City District offices in Lee’s Summit, transportation officials asked Kansas City drivers to pay attention and slow down in work zones.
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Driver inattention is a leading cause of crashes, in and out of work zones.
The Transportation Department has seen a rise in work zone crashes. In 2016, seven people were killed in work zone crashes on the Missouri highway system, and an addition person died on local roads. Since 2000, 18 MoDOT employees have been killed while on the job.
Some of the crashes could have been prevented if drivers were paying better attention and watching for workers, MoDOT officials said.
Kansas Department of Transportation officials on Monday urged drivers to be alert after one of their arrow boards was hit by a fatigued truck driver in a work zone on westbound Interstate 670 at Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.
The crash sent the sign, which costs about $4,400 to replace, tumbling into the middle of the Kansas River. A spokeswoman said the sign likely wouldn’t be fished out of the river at this time.
At Monday’s news conference, transportation officials displayed the crushed truck-mounted attenuator — a crash cushion — that protected Surber’s crew.
The crash occurred on U.S. 50 near the Chipman Road bridge in Lee’s Summit. Surber was in his truck with his arrow board activated, directing traffic to move over into another lane. Prior to the crash, he saw a fast-approaching vehicle in his mirrors.
“It was very scary — I was hoping he would get over and stop,” Surber said. When he realized the driver wasn’t moving over, he flashed bright LED lights on the back of his truck in the hope it would catch the driver’s attention.
It didn’t, and the vehicle struck the crash cushion on the back of his truck at highway speeds. Surber and the driver were taken to the hospital. Surber suffered whiplash and back injuries. He recently was released from light duty.
He pleaded for drivers to pay attention when they come across work zones.
“It’s dangerous for us, and we all want to go home to our families,” Surber said. “I have a 3 and 4-year-old at home that I want to go home to.”
Don Wichern, Kansas City district engineer for MoDOT, said work zones will start popping up in the Kansas City area just as soon as the weather permits.
“It’s highly critical that everyone pays attention as they are driving through our work zones,” Wichern said.
Because driver inattention is a leading cause of work zone crashes, MoDOT is urging drivers this year to put down their cellphones, including Bluetooth and other hands-free phones.
“We really need folks to pay attention,” Wichern said.
Work zones remain one of the most highly emphasized enforcement aspects for the Missouri Highway Patrol, said Sgt. Bill Lowe, a spokesman. Troopers want to be out there making sure the construction zones are safe for the workers.
“We will always be within those work zones at some period in time,” Lowe said. “You may not see us every time you encounter a work zone; however, that is a priority for us.”
Lowe also urged drivers to use the zipper merge method when they encounter work zones. Under that method, drivers use the open lanes and wait as long as possible to merge. At the merge point, drivers take turns merging into a single lane, kind of like how a zipper works.
“There are two lanes for a reason,” Lowe said. “We want to make sure you are using both of those lanes as you enter the work zone and then merge safely when those lanes end.”