by Dennis Dalman
A state bill that would ban cell-phone use by drivers at roadway work zones and decrease the speed limit by such zones has the full support of Jodi Rajkowski of St. Joseph.
Her support is not surprising, considering her husband, Ron, was killed while working at a construction site two-and-a-half years ago. Rajkowski testified in favor of the bill at a House committee meeting on the bill at the St. Paul Capitol earlier this month.
“Our hearts ache forever for Ron, no matter how life changes or moves on,” Rajkowski said at the hearing.
On Oct. 13, 2011, Ron Rajkowski and another man died after a driver from Missouri veered off the road, traveling at 70 mph, and slammed into the two workers. Craig Carlson of St. Paul, a project supervisor, was killed instantly. Rushed to a hospital, Rajkowski died shortly after of massive internal injuries. The collision happened on Interstate 35 at Burnsville. Rajkowski, an employee of the Egan Co., was helping install fiber-optic cable at that site.
The man who hit them, 21 at the time, said he realized his car was getting too close to a retaining wall when he overcorrected his steering, sending his vehicle into the two men working off the side of the road. There is no evidence that man was using a cell phone, although a cell phone was found later on the front seat of the car.
In Missouri, the man was fined $100, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and served 30 days of a work-release sentence in jail.
At the time of the collision, the orange work-zone speed sign said 60 mph, but the customary white 70 mph sign had not been taken down yet, Rajkowski told the Newsleader.
“If the speed limit had been 55 mph, I still say Ron and Craig might have had time to see the car coming at them,” she said. “They might have had time to jump out of the way. There were no barriers protecting Ron and Craig where they were working when they got hit.”
Rajkowski said a split-second accident took away her husband and the father of their two boys, and so many special days and times were forever taken away by his death. A split-second of driver distraction, she said, “can be disastrous.”
Carlson’s widow, Deb, also told the committee members how devastating her husband’s death was to her and her two children. She said Craig had often told her how fast people drive past work zones and how many of them can be seen talking on cell phones.
Another person who testified at the bill’s hearing was Larry Hanson, safety director for the Egan Co. for which Rajkowski worked.
“We have a pickup that nobody wants to drive because it’s Ron’s truck,” he said, choking back tears. “We have an office nobody wants to use because it’s Craig’s.”
If the bill is approved by the state legislature, it will go into effect Aug. 1. Many legislators said they are in favor of banning all cell-phone use by motorists while driving, but the bill’s sponsor said he would rather address just the work-zone proposal first. The bill’s author is State Rep. Ron Erhardt (DFL-Edina). The bill as now written would make illegal the use of cell phones by drivers in work zones whether the cell phones are hand-held or not.
According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Department of Public Safety, in the past five years there have been 26,000 crashes at work zones in the state, causing 4,017 injuries and 41 deaths.
“What we want,” Rajkowski told the Newsleader, “is to get people to pay more attention, to quit doing things like eating a hamburger, putting on makeup or talking on cell phones. Those things are dangerous on any roads but especially in work zones.”
Rajkowski said she is hoping the proposed bill will find widespread support in the legislature and with the general public.
“The more supporters we have, obviously the better,” she said. “It would be good if people would contact their legislators to say they are in favor of the bill.”
Rajkowski is employed by Stearns County in its human-services department. Her two boys Blake and Chase are now 10 and 8.