Danger ahead: For Caltrans’ roadside workers, a routine day can turn deadly

They are so familiar to the motorist's eye, they are almost invisible: Those highway workers who toil along the roads, doing everything from directing traffic to filling potholes. It's a demanding job-and a dangerous one.

Since the mid-1920s, some 170 state highway workers have been killed in the line of duty. The danger faced by the highway workers is always present, and when accidents happen they happen fast.

For example, one crash-the state worker survived this one-occurred last month in the Sierra Nevada on Interstate 80. A big rig struck a Caltrans maintenance truck, "launching the bed of the truck 226 feet. The big rig driver died. Luckily, the Caltrans worker was earing his seatbelt and survived," Caltrans said.

On Tuesday, several hundred people gathered in Sacramento at a memorial for the dead highway workers. Some 100 members of the victims' families were in the crowd – the highest number since the annual ceremonies were launched 18 years ago. For the first time, the memorial ceremonies coincided with a national campaign urging motorists to drive carefully in "slow zones."

Attendance growth at the memorial services has been significant, said Caltrans spokeswoman Tamie McGowen.

"Basically it started out very, very small, up until about five years ago in Capitol Park. Then it got larger and we moved it to the West Steps (of the Capitol), and it has continued to get larger every year."

McGowen said the non-profit California Transportation Foundation assists in meeting the travel expenses of the victims' relatives who wish to attend the ceremonies.

Most of the accidents are caused by reckless drivers who veer into the "cone zones," the but the proportion of fatalities may come as a surprise: Four out of five all the fatalities in the cone zones are inside the vehicle, among the driver and passengers, McGowen said.

Some related factoids:

• Caltrans must purchase 120,000 new cones each year to replace cones destroyed in work zones at a cost of $1.87 million annually.

• Caltrans lost three workers within a single three-month period in 2007. They were Djuan Bush on Sept. 25, John Knabenbauer on Nov. 28 and Matthew White on Dec. 14.

• With the passage of voter approved road construction bonds, the number of Caltrans work zones will significantly increase in the upcoming years.

• Over the past decade, California's population has risen 14 percent while the number of registered vehicles has risen nearly 23 percent, increasing the hazards for roadside workers.

• Some 5,606 collisions took place in California highway work zones in 2006. During the same period, the California Highway Patrol issued 2,247 citations for speeding in California work zones.

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