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NYS Laborers’ TriFunds Succeed in Push for Safer Work Zone Laws

Across the U.S. and Canada, motorist intrusions into highway work zones continue to be one of the most common ways that LIUNA members lose their lives. Each year in the U.S. alone, over 120,000 work zone crashes result in more than 43,000 injuries and 780 deaths to workers, motorists and pedestrians.

LIUNA affiliates in New York state noticed these trends as well. In 2018 alone, there were over 700 crashes in work zones on New York state roads and bridges, leading to 13 fatalities and more than 300 injuries. In 2019, the New York State Laborers’ Health & Safety Trust Fund (NYSLHSF) started what would become a two-year campaign to improve work zone safety for workers in New York state.

Photo Enforcement in Work Zones Comes to New York State

The result of those efforts is the bipartisan passage of A485B/S4682B. This bill creates a six-year demo program to add speed cameras to interstate and highway work zones across New York state. Details of the how the program will work include:

  • Speed. Drivers going 10 or more miles per hour over the speed limit through a work zone will receive a ticket. Work zone speed limits are typically set 10 mph below the regular posted speed limit. In New York state, for example, where most interstates have a posted 65 mph limit, the speed limit through a work zone would be 55 mph.
  • Worker presence. Cameras will only be turned on in active work zones where workers are present. This policy helped remove opposition to the bill from members of the legislature who voiced concerns the program could be seen as a “cash grab.”
  • Placement and advance warning. The demo program allows for 30 cameras, and their location will be determined by crash history and areas where there is an emphasis on speeding. Signage warning motorists they are approaching a photo-enforced work zone with workers present will start at least one mile away, so drivers have ample warning to slow down and avoid a fine.
  • Privacy. Cameras won’t take pictures of drivers, only the license plate and make/model of the vehicle. Because of this, tickets will be a fine only, with no “points” on a driver’s license.
  • Fine structure. Motorists receiving speeding tickets will pay $50 for a first offense, $75 for their next ticket and $100 for a third offense. This structure is less punitive than other states with work zone speed camera laws and also helped with the bill’s quick passage. (In Illinois, for example, it’s $375 for a first offense.) The majority of the revenue generated from this program will go toward additional work zone safety programs.

“There’s no question this legislation will help keep our highway workers and New York’s motorists safe,” said Frank Marchese Jr., Executive Director of the NYSLHSF. “This was a real team effort throughout the LIUNA network in New York, and everyone did a tremendous job getting this bill across the finish line.”

Partnerships Across LIUNA Help Make Law a Reality

Even at the beginning of the campaign in 2019, the NYSLHSF had a headstart thanks to other LIUNA affiliates. Knowing other areas of the country already had work zone photo enforcement laws on the books, the NYSLHSF reached out to the Midwest Region Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund. “Within a few days, their office sent over policy language and data on the existing program in Illinois, and we were off and running,” said Marchese.

Next, the NYSLHSF enlisted the help of a LIUNA Local, a LIUNA Organizing Fund and a LIUNA signatory contractor to monitor motorists speeding through an existing New York state work zone. Over a three day period, they tracked 65,000 vehicles and found 20 percent of them were going 10-20 mph over the speed limit and that six percent were going 20 mph or more over the limit. Some of these vehicles included tour buses, which sped by LIUNA members at 80 mph or more. Many cars were clocked in the 90s, with one vehicle topping 95 mph.

The results of the NYSLHSF’s study showed thousands of vehicles like this one, which did not slow down when traveling through the work zone. [Images courtesy of the NYSLHSF.]

The NYSLHSF passed this work zone data and the information on the Illinois program to the team at NYS LECET, which began the process of crafting language for a draft bill, finding other groups that would also support the legislation and lobbying rank and file members in the legislature. After that, it was old-fashioned persistence and hard work.

“Every member of the legislature knew this was our issue. We met with them in person, we paid for billboards along the highway and we tagged them on social media,” said Amanda Jensen, Legislation and Policy Coordinator at NYS LECET. “By the time the vote went to the floor, no member could say they hadn’t heard of this bill.”

Safer Conditions for Workers, Drivers and Police

Photo enforcement programs in other states have drastically reduced the number of speeding violations, injuries and deaths, and there’s optimism the same will happen in New York state. After taking steps to separate workers from the flow of traffic through physical barriers instead of cones, reducing motorist speed is one of the most important ways to protect highway workers from deadly work zone intrusions. These speed enforcement laws also protect motorists, who continue to make up the vast majority of injuries and deaths in these incidents.

Lastly, photo enforcement programs also keep state troopers from having to write tickets on the side of the highway while traffic goes by at well over 60 mph. During National Work Zone Awareness Week this year, Governor Cuomo’s “Operation Hardhat” sent state troopers to work zones for speed enforcement. While that program was effective, research shows it takes an officer an average of 12-15 minutes per traffic stop, compared to only seconds for photo enforcement.

“We never framed this as ‘Laborers’ bill, this was simply common sense legislation that would benefit all highway workers and help keep New York’s motorists safe,” said Marchese. “This is why we were able to create such an effective coalition and move this bill through the legislature so quickly.”

Even if drivers don’t see flashing red and blue lights in their rearview mirrors, hopefully a ticket in the mail and a small fine will be enough to get the message across about the need to slow down in highway work zones. The lives of LIUNA members, motorists and all highway workers depend on it.

[Nick Fox]

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