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Langham: Workplace Road Safety

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Thanksgiving week 2022 was one of difficult news stories. There were multiple reminders that the workplace is dangerous.

Judge David Langham

Judge David Langham

We can focus our attention on making it safer through regulation, training and attention, but there will always remain risks. That ultimatum of risk should not deter us from the remediation we strive to bring. That we cannot render the workplace immutably safe should not keep us from trying.

I spend much time on the interstate, but driving is not a significant component of my work. For many of us, travel may be significant at times, but it pales in comparison to those whose profession is tied to transportation. Some estimate that a truck driver may log more than 100,000 miles per year. Those folks know of the dangers of the highway. We are all benefitted from those whose occupations put them out there on the highway in an effort to keep the traffic moving and as safe as possible.

In Florida, we have large signs on the highways that remind us to "move over." The signs seem reasonably recent, but the law requiring us to move over, Section 316.126, was enacted 20 years ago. It is referred to as the "Move Over Act." And, in the course of my many miles, I have had to move over many times to accommodate some shoulder activity, whether police-related, tow truck, fire or ambulance. Emergencies come in all shapes and sizes.

According to ABC 7, in Charlotte County, Florida, someone allegedly did not move over in Punta Gorda (south of Tampa) last week. A young deputy, who had been on the job for about a year and had recently celebrated his 23rd birthday, was engaged in a traffic stop on Interstate 75. A Massachusetts driver who allegedly did not move over struck the deputy's vehicle, which then struck the deputy. End of watch occurred, despite the efforts of Samaritans, first responders and hospital staff. 

The Massachusetts driver appeared before a judge Thanksgiving morning and was denied bond, according to Fox 4. It reports that the driver "has a history of DUI arrests" and only recently completed a period of probation that included not "drinking alcohol for 12 months." There is also an allegation that she was driving without a license. The regulation efforts apparently did not sufficiently deter the drinking or assure the moving over (or the having a valid license).  

It was the second alleged DUI case to catch my eye recently. The first was a bit earlier in November and a world away. The story from Warsaw, Indiana, caught my eye when it made the national news. I spent many a blissful day in that relatively quiet little corner of corn and bean country back in the day. But the peace there was shattered when a tractor-trailer allegedly ran a traffic signal and collided with a school bus, according to the Times Union.

There were witnesses to that event, and allegations of erratic driving and speeding, up to 90 miles per hour on a U.S. highway (not an interstate). It is a road with which I am very familiar, and on which I spent many an hour in another life when truck driving was my occupation. The witnesses in that incident identified a problem about 18 miles to the east and were concerned about the tractor-trailer. They followed it from Columbia City (a wide spot in the road, but "at one time the largest producer of blue jeans in the world"). 

The news does not report what efforts the witnesses may have made to contact authorities to address the tractor-trailer issue that night. They may have called authorities, but at 90 MPH, the truck was identified and followed for about 11 minutes before the bus collision. Though the collision there was horrible, there was no reported loss of life. However, 20 of the 26 bus passengers (reportedly) were injured, some significantly. CBS News reported that 16 were injured, two critically. They were apparently a sports team and coaches traveling for a tournament. Thus, in the driver and the coaches, we see the workplace element in this crash.

The two events remind us that the road is a dangerous place. A dangerous workplace for many who drive trucks, buses, police cars and more. The Florida example reminds us that moving over is a critical need, which makes sense even without a law to mandate it. The Indiana example suggests to us that we might have a chance to save a life when we observe poor driving or behavior. You can dial *FHP on your cellphone to report suspected impaired driving. I did so once, years ago, and essentially the dispatcher asked me, "[W]hat do you want us to do about it?" It was, let's say, not a confidence-inspiring interaction.

We cannot stop the drunks from getting in cars. Maybe, eventually, the government will succeed in requiring some form of interlock device in all vehicles to preclude impaired driving. But if they implemented installation of them today, it will take years for those to permeate the fleet of American vehicles by attrition.

We can, however, courteously move over when we see someone stopped (flashing lights or not). We can call in the erratic drivers (whether the dispatcher is helpful or not). We can be willing to respond to such events as Samaritans (whether we are ultimately successful or not).

Florida is in the top three by population. It is not a surprise that Texas, California and Florida lead the count for alcohol-related vehicle deaths. It is a concern for us all, but of particular concern in the workers' compensation community, as so many of us require the highways and byways for our work. Transportation events remain a predominant portion of workplace fatalities. There is much to consider and significant danger to avoid.

David Langham is deputy chief judge of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. This column is reprinted, with his permission, from his Florida Workers' Comp Adjudication blog.

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