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Work zones deserve your undivided attention

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By Commissioner GERALD NICELYTennessee Department of Transportation

On Nov. 9, 2009, 19-year-old Jeffrey Thompson and 18-year-old Cheyenne Burke were working along a stretch of I-75 in Anderson County. The boys were tightening some recently installed cable barrier rail when a truck left the roadway, crossed a median and struck them. Jeffrey's dad was working just a few feet away and saw everything.

On April 19, 2010, less than six months after the loss of her only son, Debbie Thompson joined the Tennessee Department of Transportation to share an important message about work zone safety. She is determined to prevent something like this from happening to another family. 

Every day thousands of men and women work to improve our roadways and make them safer. Thousands of us drive by them, focused on getting to work, to an appointment, to school or to some other destination. Often times, we never stop to think about the people working along the roadway and how our actions could mean the difference in whether they make it home that day. Over the years, 106 TDOT workers have lost their lives in the line of duty. To put this into perspective, this number is almost triple the 38 Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers killed while on duty.

Each year we take a week in April to highlight the importance of work zone safety. This year's national focus for work zone awareness week was, "Work Zones Deserve Your Undivided Attention," an effort to call attention to the rise in distracted driving related crashes. Nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2008 and a half million Americans were injured according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There are three main types of distracted driving: Visual, Manual and Cognitive.  Essentially, anything that takes your eyes, hands or mind away from the task of driving.  Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves all three. The Tennessee General Assembly recognized the dangers of texting while driving and enacted a law against it in 2009. 

Recognizing the growing severity of the distracted driver problem, Oprah Winfrey is taking up the cause to stop it. On Friday, April 30, Oprah joined forces with some of the country's top transportation safety organizations to declare Friday, April 30 the first national "No Phone Zone Day" and launched a new national campaign on the issue. 

Eliminating distractions is particularly important in work zones where slower traffic, sudden lane shifts and other factors require a driver's undivided attention. When you see orange signs indicating a work zone is ahead, pay attention, slow down, and minimize distractions inside your vehicle. We should all remember the words of Debbie Thompson when she said highway workers are an integral part of our lives. They make travel safer for you and your family. A small delay of your time or ignoring a phone call, or a text is a small price to pay for protecting someone else's life as well as your own.

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