By ELIZABETH DANEFF
Capital News Service
LANSING — Drivers in Northern Michigan could see more police patrols near road construction and increased license points for hazardous driving.
Work on 1,600 miles of roads and more than 200 freeway bridges throughout Michigan will take place this spring, increasing officials’ concern over worker and motorist safety.
Legislation proposed by Rep. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, would increase the number of points a person could get on a driver’s license for speeding through road construction zones.
“Construction zone safety is very important for everyone around the state,” said Jamie Calahan, legislative director for Allen. “We spent a lot of time talking to road workers about how to create a safer environment for them.”
Allen’s bill would add a minimum of 3 points for exceeding less than 10 mph of the posted speed limit and up to 5 points for speeds over 15 mph of the limit.
The bill was overwhelmingly supported by the House and, according to Calahan, is on to the Senate where it is likely to pass.
The Michigan Road Builders Association is supporting Allen’s bill as a complement to a 1996 law that double’s fines for speeding through work zones. “The number one reason for injuries in construction zones is speeding,” said Tony Milo, executive vice president for MRBA.
In addition to the legislation, the Michigan Department of Transportation is cracking down on dangerous drivers by spending at least $350,000 on the overtime costs of added state and local police patrols in construction zones.
First Lt. Mark Stewart at the Traverse City State Police Post said the grant is a response to increased fatalities and injuries in construction zones.
“When you have highway workers next to speeding traffic, that’s a dangerous situation,” Stewart said. “We’re hoping that an increase in police presence in those areas will encourage drivers to slow down.”
Additional funding has been available to State Police for four years. This is the first time it’s been offered to local police departments.
Several road projects in and around Traverse City will get under way this spring, Stewart said. State troopers will be paying close attention to traffic in those areas.
Officers statewide will watch for speeding, careless lane changes and reckless driving in construction zones.
“It’s great to expand our partnership to include all law enforcement agencies this year,” said Larry E. Tibbits, MDOT’s chief operations officer. “All the flashing orange lights in our work zones are helpful but nothing compares to one red light atop a police car.”
Road work on state highways has occurred at an average of 1,080 miles per year since 1992, MDOT reports. The 4 cent fuel tax increase in 1996 has lead to increased road rehabilitation projects.
Wexford County Sheriff Gary Finstrom said whether or not his department gets additional funding, officers will continue to pay close attention to roads being repaired.
“The most obvious thing we look for is speed violation,” Finstrom said. “With all the signs and warning drivers get, there’s no reason for speeding.”
Finstrom said the department uses a traffic radar trailer to check the speeds of cars passing by. The trailer helps keep speeding under control.
“There’s such a potential for danger when workers are feet away from traffic. The radar trailer makes people look at their speedometers to check how fast they’re going. It also helps make people be aware that something is going on in the area.”
In Charlevoix County, Sheriff George Lasater has not yet been requested to patrol specific road work sites. He said his officers regularly patrol roads that are under repair.
“With the large amount of traffic our county gets in the summer, road rage can be a problem,” Lasater said. “People get frustrated having to wait for construction.”
MDOT officials will meet with police departments around the state to determine potential danger zones. Individual department funding will be determined after the series of meetings.
Sergeant Mike Harvitt at the Manistee State Police Post said additional funding to local police departments would help keep workers safe.
MDOT has not requested additional assistance from the post, but officers regularly monitor construction areas. Harvitt said close attention is paid to reckless driving in construction areas.
“We think that police presence in construction zones is the number one way to get people to slow down,” Milo said.
MRBA is looking at other ways to deter speeders, he said. Rumble strips, narrowing the work zones and varying the speed limit are all under consideration.
“These are all in the hopes that drivers will pay attention to flashing lights and radar, but nothing works as much as seeing a police officer,” Milo said.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ELIZABETH DANEFF