Inspired by a Statehouse demonstration in September to raise awareness about safety for highway workers, two state lawmakers plan to take a run at increasing fines for speeding in work zones this year.
Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, would like to triple fines for people who ignore the speed limits on roads where people are working. Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, plans to add a speeding penalty increase to a bill he introduced last year that takes aim at distracted driving.
“When we went to double penalties (the existing fine for speeding in work zones) I think there was an impact on drivers’ behavior,” McCormack said. “That’s what we need to do again. If we have to go to quadruple, I don’t really care; I don’t think they can pay enough. It’s extremely dangerous when people speed in a work zone.”
More than 100 workers are killed on road work zones every year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The FHA said in 2014 — the last year for which it has statistics — distracted driving played a role in 16% of fatal work zone crashes and speeding played a role in 29%.
Work zone safety is a priority this year for the Associated General Contractors, said the AGC’s Deputy Executive Vice President Matt Musgrave, who estimated 60 to 70 of the group’s members have 16,000 to 18,000 employees who work on highways and bridges.
“You could make the argument that there are thousands of people out on the road on a given day,” Musgrave said.
In August, James Alger, of Barre, died after he was hit by a car while working as a flagger at a construction zone on Route 7 in Addison County. The driver who hit him, Jennifer Bergevin, of Middlebury, was charged with driving under the influence of drugs and grossly negligent operation of a vehicle.
Smith introduced a bill, HB 165, last year that proposed a $500 fine for driving while using a hand-held phone. At that time, McCormack discussed tripling fines for people who were caught speeding in work zones. Smith’s bill would also add five points per infraction, meaning people caught using a mobile device twice in two years would have their license suspended.
But State Police testified against the measure, saying the proposed penalties were too harsh and might deter police from enforcing the law.
After hearing that testimony, McCormack decided not to call for a vote on Smith’s bill. There just wasn’t enough support, he said. But McCormack has vowed to help Smith with the companion language being added to the bill, increasing fines for speeding in work zones. He’s not sure how to change opinions in the Statehouse on the issue, but he wants to try.
“The thing about moving violations … I shouldn’t say everyone speeds, but a lot of people do,” McCormack said. “Including the police. How often do you see a state trooper fly by you at some speed clearly more than 65, without the siren, without the light? Is that an emergency he’s going to or is he showing he can do this and off he goes?”
Part of the problem with work zone safety is that police assigned to the work zone don’t have the authority to enforce the law if they are parked at the work zone, Musgrave said. Only police officers who are working their regular detail on the road can pull speeders over, he said.
Smith, a motorcyclist who said a distracted driver using a mobile phone almost ran him down in Island Pond a few years ago, said he also wants to increase the fines now in place for speeding or distracted driving in a school zone.
“This bill is important to me and I think I’m going to have some real good support on it,” Smith said.
Alger’s death might have brought new attention to the matter, said McCormack.
“Too bad it would take something like that,” he said. “I hope that Public Safety supports these things.”