Crystal Neelon

Crystal Neelon, public information officer for ODOT District 3, speaks Tuesday morning during an event to raise awareness of work zone safety going into the Labor Day holiday weekend.

MANSFIELD -- The Ohio Department of Transportation's Crystal Neelon has a family investment in work zone safety.

"My husband, the father of my 6-year-old little boy and my 4-year-old little girl works for ODOT every single day," Neelon said Tuesday morning during a pre-Labor Day holiday weekend event aimed at raising public awareness of work zone safety.

"With work zone crashes so high, I worry about his safety. I don't ever want to tell my children that their dad didn't come home from his day at work," said Neelon, the ODOT District 3 public information officer.

Neelon, whose district includes Ashland, Crawford, Erie, Huron, Lorain, Medina, Richland and Wayne counties, said Ohio had more than 4,500 work zone crashes in 2020 and has more than 2,500 as of last month in 2021.

Five workers were killed in work zone crashes last year, according to ODOT.

"That's just halfway through the year. Of those 2,500 work zone crashes, 100 of them were ODOT involved. That means that 100 times this year our crews had to call home or go home and tell their families that they had been involved in a work zone crash," Neelon said.

Neelon was one of several speakers at the event, hosted by ODOT and the Ohio Laborers Union at the United Steelworkers Local 169 Union Hall with a busy U.S. 30 as the backdrop.

Neelon said the approaching holiday weekend means more drivers on the roads, posing greater dangers to the men and women working to improve the roads.

"The need to spread the importance of work zone safety," she said.

Ohio's "Move Over" law requires motorists to move at least one lane over, or slow down if that's not possible, when driving by any vehicle with flashing lights on the side of the road.

The original law took effect in 1999 to reduce risk to law enforcement officers, emergency responders tow-truck operators. It was expanded in 2013 to apply to every stationary vehicle with flashing lights, including road construction, maintenance and utility crews.

OSHP Sgt. Ray Santiago

Ohio State Highway Patrol Sgt. Ray Santiago speaks Tuesday morning.

Sgt. Ray Santiago, the Ohio State Highway Patrol's public information officer for northeast Ohio, called work-zone safety a serious issue.

"It's something we need to address and keep at the forefront, especially coming into a holiday weekend," said Santiago, a former statewide "Trooper of the Year." 

"Work-zone safety is something that the patrol and troopers aggressively enforce throughout the state to protect those that are working on our roadways and truly are keeping Ohio moving," Santiago said.

The sergeant said there have been 29,507 work-zone crashes in Ohio since 2016, resulting in 116 deaths.

"It's a lot of folks and those are a lot of families that will never be the same due to something that was completely preventable," Santiago said.

State Rep. Marilyn John, of Shelby, who represents Richland County in Columbus, said the location of the event with U.S. 30 as a backdrop was appropriate. The highway going through Mansfield's north end is in the midst of a multi-year improvement project.

"I know how dangerous it is for us as we come on and off Route 30 during the construction," John said. "I can't imagine what you think when you put on your vests and your hats and you go to work and all of the men and women who have been making Route 30 a safer route for us to drive on."

Marilyn John

State. Rep. Marilyn John speaks on Tuesday during an event to raise awareness about highway work zone safety.

Bethany Billi, executive director for the Ohio Laborers’ District Council, said she was present Tuesday to advocate for the 15,000 men and women across Ohio who do construction craft labor.

"We're really trying to advocate to the public the importance of paying attention, while always driving, but especially in work zones. Our men and women are out on these roads trying to make them safer for everyone who travels them. We're trying to ask everyone to make them safer while they are doing that work."

Eric Finger, ODOT District 3 project engineer, said he often has worked on I-71 projects.

"I can't begin to explain how terrifying it is when you have traffic whizzing by you at 65-plus miles per hour and you have nowhere else to go beside stay(ing) your lane and mark pavement repairs and get ready for the next day's paving operations," Finger said.

"It's especially scary when you have vehicles not paying attention. Mostly, I see people on their phones. Oddly enough, I've seen people trying to read books and drive and eating, as well," he said.

"All of this is just a distraction that we don't need. We're trying to work six feet away and get the pavement fixed."

Tim Farley, ODOT District 3 highway management administrator, said safety is the agency's overriding goal.

"We all talk about budget. We all talk about productivity. But safety is the first thing we talk about," he said. "We want everyone to come to work, go home and enjoy your families over Labor Day.

"We want zero accidents, zero near misses, zero injuries and zero fatalities. We're not going to give up until we get closer to zero," Farley said.

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