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Unflagging debate


Are police or civilians safer guardians of public in construction zones?



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Sturbridge Police Officer Ron Obuchowski directs traffic around roadwork on Cedar Street Friday. Cedar Street was the scene of a minivan-versus-bus last Wednesday. Christopher Tanguay. (click for larger version)
July 12, 2009
BY CHRISTOPHER TANGUAY

News STAFF WRITER

STURBRIDGE — Whether traveling the Turnpike or running errands around town, motorists are almost certain to encounter roadway distractions.

On Wednesday, July 8, a minivan rear-ended a school bus full of children on Cedar Street in Sturbridge. While no one was injured in the accident, the operator of the minivan later told police that she was not paying attention to the bus in front of her, but was rather looking at the Highway Department in the opposite lane preparing the road for repaving.

According to Lt. Alan Curboy of the Sturbridge Police Department, accidents such as this one are not a huge issue in town, but any situation where a distraction might cause a motorist's mind to wander from their rate of travel has the makings of a disaster.

"That inconsistent application of speed has a high possibility of causing a crash," Curboy said. "A good traffic pattern could stop a lot of problems in a construction zone."

Curboy said he has no personal opinion as to whether that traffic pattern is best established by a uniformed police officer or a civilian flagger directing traffic. He did say, however, that work areas should be clearly marked to alert motorists to potential road congestion or hazards.

Curboy responded to a call on Thursday regarding that very issue, when a motorist reported a construction vehicle in one lane of Hall Road surrounded only by a few cones, with no signs or person directing traffic.

Late last year, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law the Transportation Bond Bill, a provision of which allows civilian flaggers holders to direct traffic around work zones rather than police officers as a means of saving the commonwealth money.

According to the Executive Office of Transportation, flaggers must complete a specialized training course and be equipped with prescribed reflective clothing and safety gear, including a U.S. Coast Guard type air horn.

On Friday, during the actual paving of Cedar Street, an officer was stationed at the intersection of Route 20 directing traffic. There was no detail officer on the road on Wednesday during the crash.

MBS Construction Service workers paving Cedar Street declined to comment on the issue of employing flaggers instead of police.

Officer Joe Lombardi, the first to arrive on Wednesday's accident, is convinced that police details maintain a higher level of safety in construction zones.

"There's no doubt in my mind that police presence will have more of an impact over a civilian flagger," Lombardi said, explaining that the natural reaction of most motorists upon seeing the flashing blue lights of a parked cruiser or a uniformed officer standing in the roadway is to slow down.

Conversely, Lombardi said flaggers, with their dual sided "STOP/SLOW" placards may be seen as just another member of the work crew and will not be as effective at slowing the flow of traffic.

"If we can limit speed and we can limit distraction," Lombardi said, "I think the road's going to be a safer place."

Director of the Sturbridge Department of Public Works and acting Town Administrator Greg Morse said the workers in his department take on the responsibility of directing traffic quite often when working on roadsides.

Morse said that with the experience of his employees working in the road and the rarity of accidents at a work site, he does not buy into the need for police to be at every site.

"Everyday, every department, everyone is out there doing the work. It's be virtually impossible to hire a police officer to go around with every guy," Morse said.

"It just depends on duration in the road and the severity of the work," Morse added, saying there are different factors that will sometimes necessitate police assistance with traffic.

Morse said the debate over flaggers versus officers is simply a matter of perspective.

"There's not a lot [of accidents]," Morse said. "We're in the road everyday."

"Man hours versus that problem, it's very low," he added.

To comply with the provisions of the Transportation Bond Bill, Morse has signed up 10 workers for a training course to be held at the Sturbridge Host Hotel in November. Though each town is limited to two participants in each training because of the high demand, Morse said a request was put in to allow as many Sturbridge workers to attend as space will allow.

Overall, Morse said the responsibility of road safety has to fall on the shoulders of drivers, not flaggers or police officers.

"They're doing everything but driving," Morse said, citing text messaging and telephone calls as major distractions that motorists bring upon themselves every day. "People need to take responsibility for their own actions."

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

See Tuesday's Southbridge Evening News for more community news.

Stonebridge press
Janines Frostee
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