On Tuesday, Michigan hosted the National Work Zone Awareness Week event in the midst of a Rebuilding Michigan project on M-59 in Macomb County. On this week's Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Stephanie Boileau, county highway engineer for the Chippewa County Road Commission and president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA).
Boileau was among the speakers at Tuesday's event, joining Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, MDOT Director Paul Ajegba, Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper, Leslie Fonzi-Lynch (the mother of a fallen worker), and other advocates for road worker safety.
Boileau talks about her personal connection to the issue in previous jobs, having lost colleagues in work zone crashes. She also emphasizes the need to engage lawmakers in discussions about work zone policies and laws.
Fonzi-Lynch spoke poignantly about her son, Brandyn Spychalski, a road worker injured in a crash in 2017. He died in 2020 from the injuries he suffered.
This year's work zone safety public service announcement, in memory of the five workers killed in Michigan work zones in 2020.
Andy's Law, named for Andrew Lefko, who was paralyzed after being struck by a vehicle while working on I-275 in 1999. He was 19 years old, and it was his first day on the job. Andrew died in 2018.
Video from the live stream of Tuesday's event.
Jeff Cranson: Hello, this is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Cranson: Tuesday, Michigan hosted an event to mark National Work Zone Awareness Week. The event featured Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and many other advocates for protecting the men and women who work on our roads. Among the speakers was Stephanie Boileau, who is the county highway engineer for the Chippewa County Road Commission, and she's also president of the Michigan chapter of the American Traffic Safety Services Association. She talked about the need for lawmakers to focus more on policies that protect workers. Stephanie, thank you for participating Tuesday and for taking the time to talk now. Could you just talk a little bit about your background? because clearly you've been in private industry and been in the public sector and you have a perspective gained from multitude jobs.
Stephanie Boileau: Yeah, so, I got my Bachelor's of Science in Civil Engineering at Wayne State University, and I jumped right in to a consulting engineering firm in Metro Detroit. After working for a few years there, I went over to the west side of the state and worked for consulting geotechnical firm in Muskegon. Now, I am up in Sault Ste. Marie with the county working for the public. So, I first got involved with ATSSA after experiencing two separate fatality events while doing road work. And I saw the response that happened in the field. I saw the response that happened in the courtroom, and also dealing with the changes that have to take place, like, both at a cultural level and at a corporate policy level.
Cranson: These were co-workers, colleagues of yours?
Boileau: Yes, one was a fellow co-worker. He was struck and killed during a flagging operation up in the Bay City area, near Bad Axe. And the other was a traffic control subcontractor. He was the owner of a traffic control company, and he was somebody that I really considered to be my mentor for traffic control. In this industry, like, especially as a young woman, it's pretty rare to find, you know, male mentors that will take you under their wing and really help you and help you grow; Kevin was one of them. And, so, I learned a lot about traffic control from him. And after about three, maybe four years of working together he was struck and killed down in Indiana. And, so, I took a look around and I was like, ‘hey, this is a problem.’ Dealing with the fallout from that is not fun and, so—
Cranson: So, both these cases they were—I'm sorry to interrupt.
Cranson: But I just want to set the scene if I can. These were people working in active construction zones and drivers who were distracted, or speeding, or both, that hit them?
Boileau: Correct. So, in the first case the work zone was already set up and an impaired and distracted driver struck and killed the flagger. In the second case, they were setting up a work zone. So, nobody was working in their own in the road yet. They were still putting up sign engine cones and that kind of thing. Again, an impaired, speeding driver struck and killed them from behind.
Cranson: So, we heard a similarly compelling story from Leslie Fonzi-Lynch, who is the mother of Brandyn Spychalski, who is a private, contractor-employed road worker who was actually hit by a flatbed tow truck in a work zone in 2017. And after a number of surgeries and stays in the hospital, some ups and downs, and they thought, you know, after losing a leg that he was going to make it, and he died in 2020. Let's hear a little bit of what Leslie had to say Tuesday.
Leslie Fonzi-Lynch: Heroes have 12 central traits which are: Bravery, conviction, courage, determination, helpful, honesty, moral integrity, protective, self-sacrifice, selflessness, inspirational, and strength. My son Brandon had all of these qualities.
Cranson: So, you know, hearing her story, bringing back what you went through with your co-workers, and the reasons that have motivated you to get, you know, very involved with this and to be an advocate, you talked kind of pointedly about contacting lawmakers, the chairs of the various transportation committees in Michigan and the administration. What do you think we need to talk about in terms of policies and laws to further protect road workers?
Boileau: I mean, there's a couple of different angles we can go about this. You know, obviously, with ATSSA we have very specific things that we are pushing for. You know, one of the big ones is work zone education content to driver's ed curriculums. That's something that's not really covered in this state or in, I believe, any other state. It's not, you know, one of the core things they have to go through. They're not required to have a certain number of hours driving through work zones and understanding how to navigate them or what the rules are.
Cranson: As far as you know, they're not required at all to even take a student driver through a work zone just to get some instruction on how to drive through, is that what you're saying?
Boileau: Yes, yeah, and it is not part of the test either.
Cranson: That seems doable.
Boileau: Yeah, very, and I mean, that's a pretty easy way to start educating people. One of the other things is, you know, budgetary changes, accommodating law enforcement presence in work zones. That's something—we're looking at having specially allocated federal dollars, so that way we're not pulling from other pots. We're not going from transportation design, or maintenance funding, or education, or whatever other money they like to shuffle around in the state. Having a specially federally allocated budget for law enforcement and work zones, and then kind of the sister to that is going to be making sure that, you know, penalties are enforced for work zone intrusion crashes. Right now, I believe the last several fatalities that we've had in the past five years have—the drivers that struck and kill the workers were not really receiving the sentences that are put on the signs, right? So, we have injure/kill a worker 15 years and a $7,500 fine. Those signs were put up due to the effort of Andy Lefko's mother, Diane, who worked really hard with Governor Engler to get to get those signage enforced, right? But now we're at the point where even when a driver is deemed to be extremely, grossly negligent, impaired, distracted, beating far above that 45 mile an hour limit through work zones, they're not really getting a sentence that matches what that sign says, so we need prosecution on board as well.
Cranson: So, do you think that—I mean, every case is different, obviously, but you get the feeling that it's not enough diligence by the prosecutors, or is it often, you know, when it gets to the sentencing phase and how a judge makes a decision?
Boileau: I guess I don't have enough experience in the legal realm, fortunately, to identify that. So, maybe it is a little bit unfair to pick directly on the prosecution, but the judicial system as a whole. You know, I think if someone is deemed to be grossly negligent, impaired, massively speeding, you know, that we can show that poor choices were made, repetitive poor choices were made, then we need to come down on that because right now it's kind of setting this example that those signs don't matter. I think Leslie touched on that in her speech, you know, saying, ‘what the heck, like, we have all these signs up and you're not going to do anything about it.’ That just sets an example to everyone else that it doesn't matter.
Cranson: So, have you heard any feedback from the lawmakers and the committee chairs who you've contacted yet, or is it is it too soon?
Boileau: It is an ongoing process. One of my goals as the new president of the Michigan chapter was to increase our visibility, both throughout the industry and have, you know, our fellow construction workers understanding that they have advocates in the state that care about their safety and are doing something to improve their safety on the roads. And the other was to get in front of our lawmakers, our decision makers, and educate them about how, you know, even though we're getting all this funding in for infrastructure, you know, we need to be making sure that we're doing this in a smart way, in a safe way, and that we're not exposing our labor pool to, you know, unreasonable or increased risk.
Cranson: Well, at the national level, your organization, ATSSA, obviously, is lobbying for all kinds of safety initiatives and should have a willing year. And the new secretary, Pete Buttigieg, who, as you know, has put a real emphasis on safety is—I mean, ATSSA is about safety overall, traffic safety, you know, on every level, but do you feel like it's something that you're getting support from the national organization on in putting this kind of special emphasis on work zones?
Boileau: Oh 100%, so as you touched on the ATSSA's overwhelming goal is traffic safety in every regard, pedestrians, bikes, the motoring public, how do we integrate the new autonomous vehicle technologies onto our existing road system, how do we update our existing road systems to reflect that autonomous vehicle, but work zones are a really critical part of that. And that's definitely one of the areas where we could see the most improvement. I mean, from 2018 to 2019 alone, our worker fatalities increased across the United States by 9%. And the data is not out for 2020 yet, but we have been getting some, like, preliminary reports back that distracted driving, impaired driving, high speed driving, just general driver bad behavior increased massively over 2020.
Cranson: Yeah, it's well documented, and the State Police and other law enforcement agencies are baffled really. I mean, there's a lot of different theories. Some people think, obviously, that the biggest one is just that there was there were fewer cars on the road, and it just seemed like a big, old, wide open road. We know that, you know, when you have wider lanes and more capacity people go faster. But it seems like there must have been more going on than that because it created bad habits, and some of those high speeds are continuing even as traffic returns. It's a tremendous concern, and, you know, I just continue to question. I mean, it's a pandemic why is everybody in such a hurry? I can't figure it out, and you see it firsthand in the work zones.
Boileau: Yeah, there's nowhere to go, so—
Cranson: Yeah, and maybe part of that's frustration. And that's what some troopers I’ve talked with have speculated on that too, that it’s just, you know, angst, stress, frustration, and people drive faster. I guess what would you—you'd like to see better enforcement, but it's not so much your thinking that it's the laws that assess the penalties for being cited, for driving in a work zone, and especially injuring or killing a worker. Are there any other specific policies besides the driver's ed component, which seems very practical to me, that you would be advocating for?
Boileau: You know, there's two problems with work zone safety the way I see it. There's internal issues and there's external issues. So, internal is what goes on within our industry, the culture, the behavior, the means and methods we deploy, and then there's the external which is the traveling public. And there's a lot of things we can do to help, like the increased law enforcement, the driver's education. We could do things like, you know, the automated speed enforcement cameras in work zones like Pennsylvania does. However, that's a really hot button issue. There's been several states, most notably Texas and Wisconsin, that have declared those unconstitutional in their states. So, the cameras are kind of a trigger point for many people, and that may not ever get passed in this state. So, those are things that we can do for external, for the public. However, we're kind of in this unique situation, where unlike a lot of the other dangerous industries out there like manufacturing and steel working and roofing and oil and gas, like, the public isn't allowed to just run willy-nilly through those facilities. So, we always have kind of this unpredictable driver behavior in the equation, but there are things that we need to be doing better internally, right? We need to have consistent work zones. We need to, you know, balance out mobility versus safety.
Cranson: Do you feel like that balance has swung too far toward mobility?
Boileau: You know, when you're restricted 9 to 3, your job drags out longer, or your option is to work at night. And then there's all the issues with night work, right? Drivers have increased speed because there's less people on the road. Impaired driving or tired driving is more likely to go up. You also have the effects it has on the on the road workers, right? We're all off schedule. We're shifting hours of work. There are issues associated with that, but I also understand there's an economic cost. You know, we're not going to shut down every single road like we did with I-96 through Livonia and Redford. For every project, that's just not feasible. Bringing that balance a little back to center would definitely be appreciated. The other thing is that, you know, traffic control, like everything else in this industry, is it is low bid, right? There's no incentive to be trying new technologies. There's no incentive to be more safe or better. And then when there's issues there's no there's no enforcement. I mean, MDOT doesn't have any teeth. You know, there's no other way to say, ‘hey, this is messed up and it's causing a bad situation, or—'
Cranson: Well, those are things that, you know, are discussions for the legislature because these do involve, you know, laws. And a low bid component is something that they can talk about. So, those are all good thoughts. I’m glad you're out there banging the drum on this. And I want to say, again, I think your comments on Tuesday were very poignant and fit in well with the other speakers. I think we'll have to talk again sometime. For now, I just want to say thanks for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it.
Boileau: Of course. Thank you.
Cranson: And to close this week's edition, we're going to hear what MDOT Director Paul Ajegba and then Governor Whitmer had to say at Tuesday’s event.
Paul Ajegba: The sobering reality is that we still have a lot of work to do. However, with the help and attention of workers and road users, MDOT, and Michigan’s highway construction industry, we can reduce and eliminate work zone deaths. As drivers, we can still help by slowing down and keeping a safe distance between vehicles, minimizing distractions, and staying alert, obeying road workers, and all signs, watching for slowdowns and sudden stops, avoiding work zones when possible, and checking routes before leaving home, and be patient and calm.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: That's what today is really about, to see the humanity in one another, to remember we're all people, and the men and women who are on these construction sites have families and friends and loved ones who wait for them to get home at the end of the day. This is not a hassle. This is not an obstruction. This is a workplace where there are men and women who have loved ones and lives, and that's what today is really all about.
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 podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.