Street sweeping crews and other road workers often in danger

EVERETT — They stick to the shoulders and putter along at 3 mph.

Despite yellow warning signs and lights and moving slowly on the fringes, they can be a magnet for mayhem.

Such is the reality for state Department of Transportation street sweepers and the dump truck drivers who follow behind trying to provide protection for the workers.

A fatal crash along I-5 in Everett early Monday morning underscored the danger.

A 1991 Ford Explorer struck a concrete barrier before slamming into a stationary dump truck that was about 1,500 feet behind the street sweeper it was shielding. The SUV hit the truck, flipped over and burst into flames, according to the Washington State Patrol.

The dump truck driver grabbed a fire extinguisher, but it was too late to save the SUV driver, said Justin Fujioka, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

Levi Spromberg, 25, died at the scene. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

In a typical year in northwest Washington, there will be between 20 and 25 crashes involving drivers slamming into equipment run by state street sweeping, road striping and other maintenance crews.

Many cases involve distracted drivers.

John Tellesbo is an assistant superintendent with the transportation department’s maintenance office in Everett. Despite the dangers, conditions today are safer for drivers and maintenance workers than they were 20 years ago, he said.

Companion trucks are equipped with devices called attenuators, also known as crash cushions, that absorb the impact of fast-moving vehicles.

“It saves lives, both us and them,” Tellesbo said.

It’s a pretty steep climb into a WSDOT street sweeper cab, which is a good five feet off the ground. Inside are two steering wheels, one for right shoulder, the other for the left. There are two radios, one for the support crew, the other for dispatch help if needed. There are two motors as well: One to drive and the other to power the cleaning system.

“A lot of multitasking goes on,” Tellesbo said.

Sweeping along the highways is an endless task. It keeps the debris out of storm drains, protects the pavement from damage and makes for safer traction.

“If you don’t sweep, you would be surprised how quickly it gets bad,” Tellesbo said.

The Everett maintenance office covers about 1,000 miles of shoulders that need cleaning. The dirt and debris accumulates on the shoulders after being blown there by cars. Local crews cover a beat of state and federal highways from Lynnwood toward Arlington and Stevens Pass.

Each highway presents its own set of challenges.

“No matter where you are you can’t let your guard down,” said Ken Higden, maintenance supervisor at the Everett office. “You have to be aware of your surroundings.”

Crews often work at night when there are fewer drivers on the road.

Different stretches of highway call for different safety strategies.

Left shoulders on I-5 median typically include one truck about 200 feet behind the sweeper and a second one about 1,500 feet behind with warning lights.

Higden and Tellesbo urge drivers to be cautious when they see the crews on the highway and their yellow warning lights. Headlights help. So does moving over a lane when possible.

“Just try to pass us with caution,” Hidgen said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

Did you see fatal crash?

Washington State Patrol detectives are investigating Monday’s fatal crash involving a Washington State Department of Transportation dump truck and a sport utility vehicle along I-5 in Everett.

Evidence suggests the 1991 Ford Explorer drove onto the highway’s shoulder for several hundred feet before striking the truck and catching fire.

Patrol detectives are seeking witnesses to the crash and events prior. People with information are asked to call detective Sgt. Jerry Cooper at 425-508-0602 or e-mail at jerry.cooper@wsp.wa.gov.

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