What do you get when you take 250,851,833 registered passenger vehicles, 46,876 miles of highway, and a man with a badge? This is not the opening line of a clever joke with a cute punch line. In this scenario, it's pretty clear that in a confrontation between two ton vehicles traveling more than a mile a minute and a patrolman on the highway battlefield, man loses to machine. When a 3,000 pound car hits someone on foot there is no contest.

Unfortunately for those who work on the highway, there is no way to protect against cars on the road. The safety of any construction worker, tollbooth operator, or police officer rests on the margin of human error. The only thing standing between a patrol worker and disaster is a driver's safe operation of his or her vehicle. Distracted drivers are a major hindrance to a State Highway Patrol Officer being safe in his working environment.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving an inattentive driver. On a given day in 2008, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by drivers talking or texting on cell phones. Distracted drivers are one of the leading causes of highway fatalities, and the risk is even greater for those who work on the nation's highways regularly.

The NHTSA has taken certain measures to ensure the safety of road workers. For example, when you drive through a construction zone, you probably notice a litany of bright orange signs warning you to drop your speed on pain of doubled speeding fines. Some states enforce a minimum penalty of $375.00 for speeding in a work zone, regardless of the base fine, regardless of whether workers were present or not. The penalty for hitting a worker is usually around $10,000 and jail time, depending on the state and extent of the worker's injuries. Work zones are also secured (in the loosest sense of the word) with temporary fences, flashing lights, light board signs, cones, and barrels, offering at least a visual alert to approaching. However, common sense dictates that if a car suddenly swerves out of its lane, the power of the Mighty Plastic Orange Cone isn't going to do much to protect Joe the Construction Worker from injury or even death.

Even so, construction workers are better protected than state troopers and patrolmen on duty on the nation's highways. While workers have zones blocked off and marked, officers have to pull onto the shoulder of the road to write a ticket, regardless of visibility or weather conditions. There are no threats of fine's posted in patrol zones, no blocked lanes, and most of the time, vehicles barely change speeds when passing a pulled over car. With no fluorescent vests or signs warning drivers to be careful two miles in advance, officers have no reliable protection against stray vehicles on the highway as this video demonstrates:

Take for example the case of Des Moines Police Sgt. Larina Blad. On August 15, Sgt. Blad was struck by a 4,800 pound Dodge Durango driven by a man with three prior OWI convictions. The driver, who later tested at more than two times the legal blood alcohol limit, dragged her more than a block and a half before stopping. The radio dispatch as reported by Radio Iowa indicates just how tough is this officer.

"What happened?" the dispatcher asked. "I’ve been run over," Blad replied. "I’ve been run over." The dispatcher sent "all units" to the scene. "I’ve got medics rolling already," the dispatcher told a policeman who had arrived at Blad’s side. "Is it a hit and run?" the officer asked.

The dispatcher replied: "It definitely sounds that way, yes." The suspect, 24-year-old Irving Cartagena, was allegedly driving drunk and his license had been revoked. Cops caught up with the suspect who was driving a white Chevy Tahoe. "Subject in custody?" the dispatcher asked.

Sgt. Blad, who vowed to return to work by the end of the week, was lucky not to have suffered more severe injuries in the accident. However, the same cannot be said for the roughly 70 officers who are killed in traffic related incidents each year while in the line of duty. According to the National Law Officers Memorial Fund, the majority of officer deaths for the past 11 years have been traffic related.

We can all help prevent these tragedies by driving safely and remaining alert for the sake of Iowa Highway Patrol officers, workers, passengers, other drivers, and ourselves. Leave your cell phone in your purse or pocket until you are safely parked. Avoid driving while tired or intoxicated, and always exercise caution when you see highway workers of any kind. Beyond that, it may be time to petition lawmakers to instate harsher penalties for repeat offense OWIs so that the roads are safer for everyone.

What do you get when you take 250,851,833 registered passenger vehicles, 46,876 miles of highway, and a man with a badge? The answer depends on how safely we drive. Do your part to protect the safety of highway patrol workers.

Highway Patrol Work is Dangerous

(go to 1:10 of the video)

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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