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Increased fines, public education campaign focus of highway safety efforts


Increased fines, public education campaign focus of highway safety efforts

Apr 16, 2024 | 5:51 pm ET
By Bryan P. Sears
Increased fines, public education campaign focus of highway safety efforts
Steven Cool (Left) and Robert Lewis were part of a State Highway Administration crew that nearly lost their lives last year when a dump truck collided with their vehicle as they prepared to pick up litter along a state highway in Frederick County last year. A month later, six workers were killed in a separate highway work zone crash in Baltimore County. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

Thirty seconds could have changed the fate of Robert Lewis and his road maintenance crew.

Lewis and his coworkers had just arrived at a site along a state road in Frederick and were preparing to pick up litter. Just as workers were about to begin their work, a dump truck slammed into their vehicle.

“I got out of my truck and the next thing I see is car parts flying through the air,” said Lewis. “I ducked. When I turned around, the back of a dump truck was within six inches of my head.”

Lewis said the truck they were driving was using its warning lights. The crew wore high visibility safety vests.

“We did everything right and still almost lost our lives,” Lewis said.

The impact moved his truck. The crew working with Lewis scattered.

“I took a head count,” he said. “You can’t imagine how relieved I was that everyone on my team was ok.”

The driver faced only “a minor traffic citation,” according to Lewis.

“I wish I could stand here and say that kind of danger is rare but it’s not,” said Lewis. “In fact, I could spend an hour telling you story after story of all the close calls that we’ve experienced. Especially just in the last year since our work site was crashed.”

Lewis told the story while standing on an overpass overlooking a stretch of Interstate 695 in western Baltimore County where, just a month after his own near-death experience, six highway construction workers were killed in a high speed two-car crash that sent vehicles careening into an active work zone.

Maryland transportation officials and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller (D) Tuesday hosted the national kickoff of National Work Zone Awareness Week. The event was held on an overpass near the site of that deadly crash on the Baltimore Beltway last spring.

“They were doing their jobs, serving their community and working to make Maryland better and have a better transportation system,” said Maryland State Highway Administration Administrator Will Pines.

On average, there are about 300 highway work zones around the state on any given day.

Since last spring, the state has recorded 14 highway worker deaths. Six were killed in the March 26 collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Last year, Maryland recorded 610 roadway related deaths. It is a total not seen in the state in nearly two decades.

There have been 130 deaths on Maryland roadways over the first 106 days of the year. During that same time, there have been just 39 days with no fatalities, according to Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration Administrator Christine Nizer.

State transportation officials said they plan to run a campaign to raise public awareness around highway safety issues. The campaign will feature sports stars including Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., and former Ravens star Torrey Smith.

Nizer said the campaign is meant to be “a reminder that one driver’s actions behind the wheel can have a profound impact on the lives of others.”

The National Transportation Safety Board recently released a report on the fatal Beltway crash. The incident is also the subject of an independent investigation being conducted by an attorney representing the family of one of the workers who was killed in the crash.

The crash led to the creation of a work group led by Miller last summer. That panel made several recommendations including increased public awareness campaigns and legislation.

Last week, Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed into law Senate Bill 479 and the identical House Bill 513.

The new law doubles the maximum fine for work zone speed camera violations to $80 starting in June. A year later, the fines move to a tiered system. Speeders caught on camera can be slapped with fines ranging from $60 to $1,000 depending on speed and the presence of highway workers.

Revenue raised by the increased fines will go toward highway safety and the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.