“It sends a jolt through your body” Why you should slow down for construction workers

Next time I feel the need for speed in a work zone, I'll think of Rocky O'Connor.

Husband. Father of four. And superintendent at Roadsafe Traffic Systems.

They're the men and women armed with the orange barrels setting up the work zones along highways and tollways.

“Everyone has close calls. There's been numerous times when I'm working and you hear brakes swerving at you. It sends a jolt through your body,” said O'Connor, who lives in Will County.

“The cars don't realize we all have families we go home to.”

National Work Zone Awareness Week ended Friday but the danger remains for front-line workers all season long.

Thirty-two people died in 28 construction-zone crashes in 2010, three of them workers, including a 50-year-old downstate Illinoisan.

There's nothing more irritating to be stuck in a construction slowdown when you're late for work. Or day care. Or an appointment. But next time, I'm tempted to cruise at 60 mph when it should be 45 mph, I'll think of Sarah Wade, a flagger with Curran Contracting.

Caring for her three kids keeps the Elgin resident in great shape. But some of her best moves are on the highway, leaping out of the way of cars.

“There are a lot of times I've had to jump off into a side ditch,” Wade said, adding the worst culprits are distracted drivers who won't follow posted speed limits or don't see construction workers until too late.

Last summer, Wade had a close call when a motorist busy texting slammed into a car, just a feet away from where she held a stop sign.

“I never go to work anticipating an accident but they're out there,” Wade said. “I would like people to know once they go into a work zone, that's my place of work. It's just like as if you were in your office.”

What's it like out on the highway when drivers ignore speed limits?

“When those semis go by, it's a roaring funnel of wind. Having a truck go by at 60 mph, it's like a tornado coming through,” explained Mike Given, a field technician at Material Service Testing.

Speeders who aren't paying attention to warning signs or accelerate to escape a lane that's closed don't realize how vulnerable construction workers are, he explained.

“There are humans out there — we don't have doors around us,” said Given, of Evanston.

Flagger Tina Ball knew she had a dangerous job, sister Anna Johnson said.

“She would tell me how even at night, people would fly by — she could feel the gusts of wind from motorists. But she was a tough cookie, she had no fear,” said Johnson, who lives in Schiller Park, where her sister lived.

It was broad daylight on Sept. 15, 2003, when a drunken driver slammed into Ball on I-57. She left behind a husband, seven children and five siblings.

“She'll never see her kids graduate or their weddings,” Johnson said. “I never got a chance to say goodbye.”

Betty Ratulowski's sister also was involved in a construction accident last year.

Isabel Dymora was power-washing newly laid concrete on Route 59 near Joliet when a driver blew past a flagger, knocking down Ratulowski's sister and running over her leg.

Dymora survived but “it's scary,” said Ratulowski, who also is a construction worker with Quality Saw and Seal.

She's been bombed with eggs and cursed by passing drivers angry at delays.

“It's not like you have anywhere to hide,” said Ratulowski, a single mom with two kids who lives in southern Cook County.

“It's a scary moment when you see barrels flying. I pray every morning I'll come home.”

Flotsam and jetsam

Ÿ National Train Day rolls into town May 7. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Union Station, you can take a ride on Amtrak, check out historical exhibits and model trains, and listen to bands like the Million Dollar Quartet.

Ÿ Calling all junior transportation wonks. The American Public Transportation Association convenes a youth summit this summer in Washington, D.C., to teach interested students about public transit. It's an all-expenses paid event — to applycheck out or contact Cheryl Pyatt at

A worker directs traffic around construction on Dundee Road. Daily Herald file photo
Drivers are urged to slow down and pay attention in construction zones. Daily Herald file photo
An inspector looks over the scene where a flagger was killed in 2003 by a driver on the on ramp to Route 53 and Higgins Road in Schaumburg. The need for drivers to take care in construction zones has only increased, with more distractions. Daily Herald file photo
Drivers are urged to slow down and pay attention in construction zones. Daily Herald file photo