News Flash

Wright County News

Posted on: February 4, 2020

New Flagger Law Empowers Road Crew Employees to Report Dangerous Drivers

It may not always seem like it, but spring isn’t that far away and, with the change of seasons, Minnesota drivers will be encountering road construction work zones, which can be a dangerous place for workers and drivers alike.

From 2014-18, there were more than 9,500 work zone-related crashes in Minnesota, which included 31 fatalities and 123 serious injuries. In that same span, there were 3,340 work zone-related fatalities in the United States.

Looking to combat the dramatic increase in crashes, injuries and fatalities, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed into a law a Senate bill authored by Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) that would make it a crime to ignore the instruction of a flagger – the person who holds the sign at the start of a work zone that instructs motorists to either stop or proceed slowly. The law went into effect Aug. 1, 2019, but this will be the first construction season that the majority of flaggers on highway and survey crews will be certified under the new law.

Flaggers must undergo training through the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and, once they complete their training, they can turn in the license plate numbers of drivers who disobey their instructions to law enforcement, much in the same way school bus drivers can report those who drive through an extended stop arm. The fine for a violation is $300.

Wright County Highway Engineer Virgil Hawkins said that safety is always the primary concern for road crews when they’re working mere feet away from moving traffic. The flagger is the first line of defense for worker safety and Hawkins applauded the bipartisan effort to pass the law, which was made necessary due to a significant spike in work zone accidents.

“The new law is intended for the flaggers to report bad behavior from a driver,” Hawkins said. “The numbers of injuries and fatalities have gone up sharply over the last few years and the main reason is that we have a lot more distracted driving and drivers just not paying attention than we used to.”

Almost all of Hawkins’ maintenance staff (more than 20 employees) are expected to take the training because, at any given time, his employees may be called into duty as flaggers. Wright County Risk Manager Tim Dahl said that the county doesn’t hire people to exclusively be flaggers, so all the highway maintenance employees can be expected to be a flagger at any time.

“Any one of our maintenance and sign workers in the Highway Department can play the role of a flagger,” Dahl said. “They take turns doing that. Some companies have their own people and that is their job. There are a lot of college kids that do that. Our people rotate the jobs depending on the job site.”

The training for the flagger law is to empower the flagger to get the proper information for law enforcement, including the license plate number, make and model of the vehicle and a description of the driver. Once certified, a flagger can relay that information to law enforcement within four hours of the incident and an officer doesn’t have to be on the scene to issue the citation.

Hawkins said he intends to have all of his workers who could potentially be flagging to get the training needed for certification. He said it is up to private companies to decide whether they want their flaggers trained. It isn’t a requirement of the new law to be certified, but, if law enforcement is going to respond, they need to be certified.

So how can you tell if the flagger is a county employee or not?

“It varies depending on the job,” Hawkins said. “The contracts that we bid out for major construction projects like overlays and reconstructs, the contractors supply their own flaggers and their own personnel. They still have to be certified and trained through MnDOT’s certified flagging training course. When our highway maintenance workers are out on the road doing crack sealing, patching and other operations, they are also certified flaggers through the MnDOT program.”

The importance of the law is that the potential for injury or death to workers comes from the fact that they are concentrating on the work they are doing and not focused on the traffic moving by them. It is the job of the flagger to be their eyes and ears, which isn’t always easy.

“The challenge the flaggers face is that there are people in the work zone who are not in vehicles, others that are in vehicles focused on their task and the flaggers are managing the work zone,” Dahl said. “If these people are violating the order to stop or slow down or the instruction that you can’t turn at a specific place, this law empowers them to hold those drivers accountable. We feel this is a valuable tool to keep people safe. People who violate the flagger instruction potentially impact everybody in the work zone, including themselves.”

The flagger law was one of several that took effect Aug. 1, 2019 – overshadowed by the hand’s free driving law that garnered a lot more attention – but the goal is the same. Anything that can be done to make it safer to drive than it had been before is a positive step. When you factor in the kind of death and injury numbers that made the law necessary, it takes on even more significance.

“If we can help prevent fatalities and injuries to workers and the drivers themselves, so much the better,” Hawkins said. “This is a problem that workers on roads face. I just encourage all drivers if they see something, say something. It’s the best way to keep work zones safe for everyone.”

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