On April 13, Justin Gates was having a tough day working inside a construction zone on SH-76 near Blanchard. The 38-year-old Newcastle man was flagging traffic as part of his job with Silver Star Construction and had already nearly been hit by a driver in the work zone. As he stopped Jamie Cleveland’s car, he told her there would be a small wait before she could enter the work zone due to equipment being unloaded ahead. At that moment, they both realized an approaching pickup was going too fast to stop in time and in a matter of seconds they would be hit.
“Go! Go! Go! Drive! Drive! Get off the road!”
Gates shouted those words to protect Cleveland and her 4-year-old son buckled in the back seat. As she quickly sped into the ditch she could only watch in horror as the truck plowed into Gates, critically injuring him.
“He saved our lives,” Cleveland said.
While Gates continues to fight for his life in the hospital due to his extensive injuries, Cleveland is sharing this story as part of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s month-long work zone awareness safety campaign — “Your Life Matters: Drive Like It.” This message is aimed at drivers to understand their role in keeping work zones safe through setting aside distractions, slowing down and giving their full attention to the road.
Earlier this week, Cleveland joined with Gail Lambert and other safety partners along I-235 in Oklahoma City to show drivers the importance of this message by a display of 85 large ribbons near N. 36th Street. Each ribbon represents a life lost in an Oklahoma work zone during the past five years. Lambert’s daughter, Owasso teacher Bobbi White, was among those honored. In May 2016, a distracted driver struck White’s car while she was stopped in a work zone near Owasso, killing her and injuring her two young children.
“Too many people — of all ages — think: ‘I can do this. I can multi-task without any issues.’ They forget that they need to watch out for the other guy because their situation can change in seconds while out on the road,” Lambert said. “Bobbi was sitting still and did not have a chance to react. I want drivers to know that we need them to think differently in order to save lives. We need a different mindset.”
In the past year alone, 17 people died in Oklahoma work zones. This includes drivers, passengers and ODOT employee Jarrel Gray, who was struck and killed by an apparent distracted driver in May 2016. The top causes of work zone accidents don’t change much from year to year. They continue to be directly contributed to speeding and driver inattention.
“For the second year in a row there have been devastating crashes in an Oklahoma work zone during this major safety campaign,” ODOT Executive Director Mike Patterson said. “Both Gail and Jamie are witnesses to the tragic consequences of work zone crashes and we greatly appreciate how they are speaking out for safety. Drivers have got to do their part and realize there are life and death consequences when they are behind the wheel.”
This month, ODOT has been joined by the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Midstate Traffic Control to increase work zone safety messaging statewide through the use of public service announcements, outdoor billboards along Oklahoma highways, social media interactions, press events and by Gov. Mary Fallin proclaiming work zone safety month in Oklahoma. Other associated partners are the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, Fairway Outdoor, Tyler Outdoor Advertising and Direct Traffic Control.
The work zone on SH-76 near Blanchard is just one project currently underway on highways statewide. More than 200 work zones are expected to be in place during the spring and summer months as the warmer temperatures allow for more surface maintenance projects.
While the 2017 safety campaign comes to a close, the messages of slowing down, setting aside distractions and being alert in work zones need to be a year-round effort for drivers. You can get to know Oklahoma’s work zones by signing up for Traffic Advisory emails on the main page of www.odot.org, and also take advantage of mapping resources on the website detailing exactly where work zones are in place at www.odot.org/construction. Updates on ODOT projects are also on page A2 of The Edmond Sun on a regular basis. Knowing the delays ahead before getting behind the wheel can greatly reduce traveling stress, especially during peak travel times.