Highway work zones are an incredibly dangerous area for motorists and construction crews.
Last year, 24 people were killed in work zones in Illinois -- and half of them were drivers. Two construction workers were killed in 2011, and three construction workers have been killed so far in this construction season. On average, the state sees approximately 7,000 crashes every year in work zones.
To honor those who were killed and to highlight the importance of driving safely in a work zone, the Illinois Department of Transportation unveiled the National Work Zone Memorial Wall on Wednesday at its Schaumburg regional headquarters, 201 W. Central Court.
The wall, which travels around the country, will be in Schaumburg through Friday. It shows the name of every person who has been killed in work zones nationwide in recent years. The list is a few hundred names long, with a little symbol next to each name indicating whether the person was a worker, a child, a pedestrian or a motorist.
"The lives lost on our highways are not acceptable," said Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider.
She stressed that drivers should not text, not talk on the phone, not speed and be courteous to other drivers when in a work zone. Her clear message was that the deaths of zone workers, motorists or pedestrians could be prevented.
"Every year, there are hundreds of work zones all over Illinois," said William Frey, acting director of IDOT's Division of Highways. To prevent injuries or deaths in work zones, "it comes down to the responsibility of the motorists," he said, encouraging people to tell others about work zone safety.
Earlier this month, IDOT launched the "Embrace the Orange" website, embracetheorange.com, to remind the public about safety in work zones.
"We have to change people's thought processes, tell them that what they do when they are driving is important," said Kurt Schuldt, past president of the American Traffic Safety Services Association. The association created the memorial wall, which Schuldt called a "sad statement." Since 2002, it has traveled to communities throughout the country to raise the public's awareness to the need to respect safety in work zones.
The date of unveiling the wall locally was not a random one: On that day a year ago, IDOT employee Ryan Nichols was struck and killed at age 34 while working as an inspector at a job site on Rt. 14 in Woodstock. He left behind his wife and three kids. Family members attended the news conference, with his father, Jim, telling Ryan's story and reminding that every death in a work zone can be prevented.
"We want to prevent families from going through what we went through," he said. Since his son's death, he works closely with IDOT to raise awareness for work zone safety.