Talking Michigan Transportation

How automated speed enforcement could save road worker lives

August 10, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 114
Talking Michigan Transportation
How automated speed enforcement could save road worker lives
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations with two people working on initiatives to protect those who build our state’s roads and bridges.

Michigan House Bill 5750 would allow the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Michigan State Police (MSP) to set up automated speed enforcement systems in segments of state roads where work is being performed. 

First, John Osika, a veteran of Operating Engineers 324, representing heavy equipment operators, talks about the need for this legislation and other measures to protect workers. He recently penned an op-ed for Bridge Magazine laying out the reasons he and his colleagues support HB 5750.

He also discusses close calls he observed first-hand while working on projects.

Later, Lindsey Renner, MDOT construction operations engineer who is transitioning from her role as work zone manager, talks about the potential benefits of automated speed enforcement. These benefits have been measured in other states, including Maryland where a 2016 report documented a 10 percent reduction in speeds in Montgomery County.

The House Fiscal Agency analysis says the bill would limit use of automated speed enforcement system to streets and highways under MDOT jurisdiction (state trunkline highways) and only in work zones when workers are present. The bill would have no impact on local road agencies.

The bill earmarks civil fine revenue from violations of section 627c first to MDOT, by implication for the cost of installing and using automated speed enforcement systems. The bill directs MDOT to deposit civil fine revenue from violations of section 627c in excess of the costs of installing and using automated speed enforcement systems into the Work Zone Safety Fund, established in the bill as a restricted fund for the purpose of improving work zone safety. 


Jeff Cranson: Hello, welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: Today, I'm going to focus on something that is important to everyone toiling to build roads and bridges, whether at MDOT, local road agencies, or private contractors and labor organizations. Those are the people whose members are on the front lines on these projects every day, the people doing the hard work and putting themselves in harm's way. Right now, there's some legislation being discussed to offer more protections to workers and enhance work zone safety. Specifically, today, we're discussing Michigan House Bill 5750, which would allow for automated speed enforcement in some work zones. As you probably know if you've listened before or you're paying attention to the news, we have a record amount of work going on on Michigan roads. It's also coincided with the pandemic, where we've seen spikes in speeding like no one has seen in Michigan in decades, and people ignoring the need to slow down in work zones leading to more crashes, more injuries, and more deaths. And it's really disturbing. So today, I’m pleased, first, to be talking with John Osika of the Operating Engineers, who penned a very thoughtful op-ed in Bridge Magazine a few weeks back that laid out why they are supporting these measures. Later, I'll speak with Lindsey Renner, a strong advocate for work zone safety at MDOT, who has been following this legislation. So first, John, thank you for being here. I appreciate it.

John Osika: Oh, you're welcome, Jeff.

Cranson: So, talk first about your experience and your long career with the Operating Engineers, and what brought you to this point, and what informs your passion in this issue.

Osika: Well, I’m a 37-year member with the Operating Engineers. I’ve been seven years here at the training center. I spent 30 years out in the field, 25 of it as a foreman and the superintendent, all on the roads and bridges. In my career, starting out in the 80s, things were much simpler and much safer. Think about it—the speed limit when I started was 55 miles an hour on the freeway. And now look at what it is. I mean, it's still 60 in the work zones. So, there was no cell phones there, like I said, it was much simpler and safer. And now, it's more congested and more complicated with all the distractions out there. So, that's why I have a passion for what's being done right now, because in my 30 years out in the field, I’ve seen some things. Things that I don't even want to talk about. And I feel, sometimes, that we’re going in the wrong direction. It's so much more congested out there, and like I said, with the distractions, that doesn't help. Speed limits have sped up. So, we just have to do something about it because we want everybody to go home every night.

Cranson: So, we've talked about this a lot, and a lot has been written. Nobody's got an easy answer here, whether it's distractions like texting, or whether it's speeding, or any of these things, especially among younger people who think they're invincible. But in fairness to those generations, it's not just them that you see, certainly, speeding through work zones. And we've tried so many different campaigns that try to humanize these people and say, this could be your brother or sister or your neighbor that's out there working, and try to think of it that way. Or this could be your workplace, imagine, you've seen, I’m sure, various PSAs that simulate cars speeding through an office, and what it would be like to work alongside of that. Nothing seems to really be making a dent. But one thing the Federal Highway Administration has been studying for a while, and it's being tried in several states, and now we're close to agreement on legislation that would allow for automated enforcement in work zones. And that's one of these bills that you mentioned in your op-ed. Could you talk a little bit about whether you think that could make a dent?

Osika: Well, I think anything we can do will make a dent. I think, with these tickets being, you got to hit them where it counts. Just the slap on the wrist isn't enough. So, if you hit them in their pocketbook, I think you're going to get more attention from them. And if they continue to do it each time they get pulled over, the fines go higher and higher, and eventually, they got to get it, I would think. Like I said, you hit them hit where it counts, right in their pocketbook. And I think that's one way to get their attention.

Cranson: Yeah, I think that OHSP and safety advocates around the country will say that, in a certain demographic, the threat of jail doesn't seem to, or the threat of being hurt or hurting somebody else, doesn't seem to scare people. But the threat of a big fine, I mean, you've seen the drunk driving commercials where they've got the young male talking about how much this is going to cost me. That is the one thing that maybe does get their attention. So, with a robust campaign around this, once you start implementing automated enforcement, make everybody aware of what you could be in for, I do think it could help. And I know a lot of people think it could help, and it seems so far, there's some evidence that it has made a difference in other states. What do you think about, and what do you hear from your members and friends and neighbors about the invasion of privacy argument about automated enforcement?

Osika: Well, I haven't heard too much negativity on it. I think it's all for the positive, right. I mean, we're all trying to do the right thing here; we're all trying to keep everybody safe. Especially everybody that's in our industry. So as far as that part of it, I haven't heard much feedback as far as being negative about that.

Cranson: Good, good. Well, talk a little bit, I know you probably would just as soon forget some of the things that you witnessed when you were out on the road either working or supervising work, but you talked about that pit in your stomach when you get that call. What are some of the close calls you've seen over the years?

Osika: Well, there was one episode; we had to set a bridge beam across the freeway where the state police would stop traffic for 15 minutes for me to set it. And it couldn't be before midnight. So, here we are at 12:30 at night, on a freeway. And it was right in the middle of the week, but it was on a freeway that's extremely busy all the time. And prior to setting the beam, we were lifting the beam up to get it adjusted just right, and we had to set it back down because it wasn't quite as level as we wanted it to be. And as soon as we set that down, see, traffic was still going because we didn't shut the freeway down yet. And there was two lanes open. We had to maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction. Well, in the meantime, there was a traffic shift in the same position, and there was a semi that was going through. And he didn't do the shift, and he pushed the car right into the downrigger of the crane. And that poor lady inside that crane—or the poor lady inside that car, hit that downrigger. And it was a sight to be seen. I’m trying, because I was right there, I was the first one. And it was just something that I don't talk about it very much because it's something that's in your head, right. And she did survive, but she was banged up for a long, long time. And that's just one of them. And there's others with just working between the barrels and the cars. That's always a touchy one for me, too. I have to tell my whole crew, always be alert, always at all times. Those are other ones when traffic's just going too fast, and when you got too many lanes, one car makes a mistake, you got cars shooting in all directions. It's never a good situation.

Cranson: Well, and you understand both sides of the issue, obviously. You drive; you have to get around.

Osika: Oh, yeah. 

Cranson: And you know that all the DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, all the DOTs put this special emphasis on user delay costs and mobility. And people get so angry. I mean, my gosh, you want to go on our Facebook page any given day and see the vitriol in the twitter feeds and other places that people hurl MDOT's way about anything that slows them down. If my 20-minute commute isn't 20 minutes, then there's moral turpitude, and somebody should fry for that. So, having to weigh that against what you're talking about, against safety and fixing the road safely and fulfilling people's expectations about how fast I can get everywhere. It's a really difficult balance to strike. And what do you say to people when you talk about this outside, like if you're at a cookout over the weekend and this topic comes up?

Osika: Yeah, it's a topic that, you're exactly right—unless you're on the other side of that wall, you don't really understand the safety of it. People that are driving don't see our side of it. And that's what I always tell them. Unless you're on both sides, but you don't understand it. And me, I’ve been on both sides. And I can say probably the safest road project I’ve ever been on in my 30 years was anytime they could shut the freeway down and have a detour—that's always the safest one. I know it's not always convenient, and it's not always easy, and not always can it be done. But if there's that opportunity, I still believe shutting the freeway down and having a detour is always the safest route.

Cranson: I agree completely. And I got to put in a plug for the governor's Rebuilding Michigan program here. Whether you support the mechanisms that we have now for funding roads or not, the fact that what we're able to do the last couple years and will be the next couple of years, completely rebuild some of these freeways as they should have been a long time ago so we're not back out there doing constant maintenance work. The fewer times you have to be out there, the fewer workers there are out there, the better. The short-term pain, obviously, and the inconvenience is worth it when you're going to have freeways completely rebuilt as you are I-96 in Oakland county, and large segments of I-275, and large segments of I-69, and large segments of 131, and 196 in west Michigan. 

Osika: Yes.

Cranson: All of that helps. 

Osika: Absolutely, absolutely. 

Cranson: Well, thank you, John, for your perspective on this. It’s really helpful, and it'll be great to be there when this bill finally gets through, and the governor signs it.

Osika: Yes. Yes, and thank you, Jeff. 

Cranson: Stay with us, we'll have more on the other side of this important message.


Narrator: If you need to get out and stretch your legs, don't forget about the annual Mackinac Bridge walk. Make your plans to attend the walk on Labor Day, and take in some of the best views in the state of Michigan on the Mighty Mac. For more information, go to


Cranson: We are back, and as I mentioned, I’m now with Lindsey Renner, who was the work zone manager at MDOT. She has done a lot over the years in work zones and trying to make work zones safer for the employees who are out there doing the hard work, and also to educate the public about what we need to do. She's transitioning into a new job as constructions operations engineer at MDOT, so she'll still be very involved in all of these things. Lindsey, thank you for taking time to be here.

Lindsey Renner: Absolutely.

Cranson: So, let's talk about this automated enforcement bill. What do you think it could mean? Everything is incremental. There's no silver bullets; we acknowledge all of that. We know it can't work everywhere. But I think it could really make a difference in some ways, and that's kind of what we've found in some other states that have been doing this for a while, right? 

Renner: Right. So, one of the benefits that this automated work zone enforcement brings to us is that other states have shown that we can count on a reduction of work zone crashes by roughly half. That obviously provides safety to the individuals that are working in our work zones, but also the motorists as well. We're seeing an average of nearly five miles per hour in reduction in speeds, which also has a tie into the severity of the crashes that we see. The nice thing that we're seeing from other states, too, is that when drivers are cited for works on speeding violations, it looks like around 11% of those drivers will reoffend. So, we don't just get the input at the project level, there seems to be some evaluation of future actions as well. So, that's one of the things that we know from other states. One of the questions that we have when we talk about something like this is, how is this funded. State budgets are not able to be extrapolated in a direction that allows for payment of something like this, and in many instances, most states, this is not a revenue generating machine. So, the state does not end up with more dollars with which to make other decisions. There's no ticketing mechanism that benefits the state. At a minimum, we might be in a situation where we can pay for the actual enforcement of this program. But there is no revenue generated. 

Cranson: That's a really good point, and as you say, that's at a minimum. Anybody who thinks that is just making excuses. It's a big brother, tin foil hat thing. I’ve heard those complaints from the skeptics, and that's just not what this is about. So, I’m glad you underscored that. But start, I guess, high level and talk about what this would mean and what having this this bill and automated enforcement. It's House Bill 5750, by the way. Talk about what it would mean. 

Renner: So, the current language that's out there that this bill would replace, it requires a law enforcement officer to witness the violation of a traffic law in order for a citation to be issued. So, House Bill 5750 amends the Michigan Vehicle Code, and it allows an automated speed enforcement system to be installed and used in a work zone that's on a highway or street under the jurisdiction of MDOT. So, this basically allows for the citation to be issued based on an image from a system—there would be a photograph taken. And then sanctions for exceeding the posted speed limit by 10 miles an hour or more when workers are present would allow a written warning, and then all the way up to a maximum of a $300 civil fine for repeat violators.

Cranson: So, I talked to John Osika earlier from the Operators, and one thing we talked about is what kinds of things, what kinds of messages, what kind of campaigns can really make a difference and alter behavior. And when you're talking about drivers in a certain demographic that speed a lot and tend to be more likely to take the risky behaviors because they think that whatever bad is going to happen isn't going to happen to me, or I’m not going to cause harm to somebody else. But what does scare them is a fine, a big fine hitting them in the wallet. 

Renner: Correct.

Cranson: So, do you think that that's what other states have found with this?

Renner: So, I think it definitely disincentivizes that behavior. If you're clipping along on I-94 and you go through three or four different work zones, that's an opportunity for three or four cameras to catch you at $300. That could be a very expensive quick trip if you can't just decrease your speed limit a couple miles per hour. 

Cranson: So, what's it been like talking and working with industry representatives on this kind of legislation and trying to get to agreement?

Renner: Yeah, actually, I think that when we first sought out to bring this in, we were a little timid to bring it because we thought that maybe we would have a lot more objections. And I think one of the learning lessons for us is that different departments, organizations, and labor unions within industry, they all bring different considerations to think about. And that's actually a really healthy conversation because nobody argues the experiences of the other person; we just try to figure out a way that we can move that information forward. And one of the things we realized is that we're actually closer together in our opinions and our priorities than we probably previously would have anticipated. Everybody is affected by resource allocation, whether it's not enough money for the project or not enough hands on deck. So, how do we move forward to provide more safety with the current levels of resources. And I think that's kind of the conversation that we had is, okay, we know what we would like to do, but how do we get ourselves there. So, I think we've had really healthy conversation and dialogue, really respectful conversation from all of the people in the room, and I think it's been for the benefit of our industry. 

Cranson: So, we talked about what it would mean at different kinds of construction sites and the fact that it just can't be used everywhere. It would be impossible to make this a blanket approach on the hundreds of projects that are active across the state. At the same time, is that mostly about resources and how much it would cost to implement the technology, or are there also just some practical reasons why this wouldn't work in every work zone? 

Renner: Right, so, the way that the bill is written right now, it could only be used on a highway or a street that's under the jurisdiction of MDOT. So, that's where it has to be used. The workers must be present. So, you wouldn't want to have this enforcement system turned on at nighttime when nobody's working. So, there has to be some consideration given as to what type of project activities are going on. Similarly, if you were in a situation where you knew that every day from 11 o'clock until 12:30, lunch break in that area affects traffic patterns and slows you down to a crawl, there would be no reason to issue tickets in that area because there's a pretty good chance nobody's got the bandwidth to speed anyways. So, we would like to see these used in areas where workers are adjacent to traffic, especially if there's demonstrated cases of high speeds in that area. 

Cranson: I got an email from, actually it was an email to my counterparts at MSP, but I was copied on it by my counterpart at Eagle, a couple weeks ago from my friend who drives frequently through the I-96 flex route work in western Oakland County. And he is just shocked and appalled at the speeds and the behavior of drivers as they go through there. That would seem like, if we had this in place right now, a prime place to trot it out.

Renner: Absolutely, and what we have seen is that you still can speed, but it makes the average speed less. So, a person who is determined to commit this kind of activity is probably still going to do it, it just gets much more expensive for them. And eventually, you would hope that that would curtail the behavior.

Cranson: So, more broadly, as somebody who's worked with this for a long time and has to wrestle with the dilemma of what's imposed on us by policies from the Federal Highway Administration and things that have been implemented by various deities around the country over the years in terms of user delay costs, how do you balance that in your own mind, and how do you talk about the need for mobility, the need for convenience? We built this incredible system starting with President Eisenhower and Senator Al Gore Sr. back in the 50s, agreeing on interstate bills. And establishing our lives, everything we do, that we live, work, and play around the idea that everything that I do that takes me 10 minutes should always take me 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. And I think everybody always says, whatever their commute is, they fudge it a little bit. But how do we balance that?

Renner: So, I think for us, we're in a tricky position because as a state DOT, we get a lot of our funding from the federal government. And one of the promises that we keep is that we will follow federal rules in order to receive that funding. So, we have to balance the rules that are given to us by the federal government with the needs that our individual areas have. And obviously traffic patterns up in the UP are different than the ones we have in the Metro Region. So, we count on our experts within those regions to make beneficial decisions about the traffic flows and those patterns. And I think that we've done things a certain way for a long time. What my unit is working on doing is kind of fine tuning some of that stuff, having those conversations about areas that we might have the ability to give a little bit of wiggle room and allowing people the engineering judgment to step outside of the box that they're in to make a decision that might benefit safety for all road users. And I think it's very hard to typify something like that because we are so different in our very many regions here, but just kind of allowing the thought that would be for the benefit of the motorists and the workers. And I think that the very difficult thing is anything that you implement into the roadway causes changes to traffic flow patterns. And are they good for somebody and bad for somebody else? That's always what we're trying to figure out and right size. 

Cranson: Well, it's even more difficult in a state that relies so much on tourism. One of our top industries and, in the summertime, the only time that you can really get the work done, especially north of US-10, and you're inviting people from other states and down state to head north. So, it’s a lot to deal with. 

Renner: When we have people come up into our state to go visit Holland and see the flowers, we don't want them thinking that the flowers are the drums, right.

Cranson: Yeah, well said. Yeah, geez, here I am a West Michigan person, I should have thought of that. So, lastly, we're going to do a couple of these demonstrations: a project near Davidson on I-69 and another one near Grand Rapids, east of Grand Rapids, the project at I-96 in the Thornapple River, which is only a couple miles, but has caused a lot of inconvenience for drivers because of the backups there. It has to be done—the road surface is very rough, and it's going to be so much better when it's over. But that's where you're going to demonstrate this technology, so talk about that.

Renner: Yeah, so our hope coming out of these demonstrations is that we're hopeful we can conduct a safe deployment of the test equipment, get a lot of people out there who are decision makers to have the conversations around how it works and the questions that they have. And in turn, hopefully this brings a tremendous increase in safety to those that work in our work zones, to those that drive through our work zones. With the guest list that we have, we have folks coming from Secretary of State, MDOT, MSP—Michigan State Police, that is—unions and industry. We're hoping that with that plus the legislature that will be in attendance, that any ideas or questions or concerns that we have we can kind of suss out at the project site, and kind of use the relationships that we've built to consider types of things that might be deal breakers and ways that we can work around them. So, I think that's kind of the goal in this is making sure that we can continue to drive safety in our industry and make it so that everybody can go home at nighttime to their loved ones. And that is the name of the game. That's what we're here for.

Cranson: Yeah, I think you're right. It's something that will help a lot when we move toward broader implementation, and I especially like that you talked about people wanting to make it home tonight. I think we made that our tagline on some of our official documents a few years back, and I still think it's one of my favorites. Think about you wanting to get home tonight, think about those people that are working wanting to get home tonight, too. So, thanks as always, again, for your hard work and your passion for work zone safety, and congratulations, again, on the promotion.

Renner: Thank you so much.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcast and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.