Michigan kicks off effort to reduce road worker deaths, work zone injuries

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Clinton Township — Brandyn Spychalski found a sense of purpose in his road construction career. But the job came with its risks.

He often shared stories with his family of drivers failing to pay attention, neglecting barriers and signs and the workers themselves, recalled his mother, Leslie Fonzi-Lynch.

An image displayed on a monitor at the press conference in Clinton Township on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 shows Brandyn Spychalski. He was  struck while working on a road project in 2017 and died from complications in January of 2020.

Spychalski was struck by a flat-bed truck near Lexington in Sanilac County in the summer of 2017 when the truck's driver veered to avoid a stopped car in a construction zone. Spychalski was crushed against his work truck on the side of the road.

The 27-year-old was critically injured. He lost his right leg, spent 281 days in the hospital and rehabilitation centers and underwent 30 surgeries before he died of complications stemming from the crash on Jan. 24, 2020, his mother said. 

"I watched my son take his last breath. We visit a grave and talk to a stone," said Fonzi-Lynch, noting her son's daughter, now 5, was forced to celebrate her birthday with only a picture of him. "I beg you, please slow down in construction zones. Our lives and others are forever changed. My son should be here."

Fonzi-Lynch made her public plea during a Tuesday news conference marking the start of National Work Zone Awareness Week, an annual observance that runs from April 26-30 to bring attention to worker and motorist safety in work zones. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation hosted its 2021 kickoff event in Clinton Township along M-59 where 4.5 miles of the roadway from Romeo Plank to Interstate-94 are being reconstructed as part of the state's $63 million Rebuilding Michigan initiative. The project in Macomb County is employing about 800 workers and is expected to be completed in November 2022.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined with Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel as well as leaders from the state's transportation department, police, workplace safety officials and construction trade association groups to mark the 21st annual event with the theme "Drive safe. Work Safe. Save Lives." 

"This is an important week, but this can't just be about a week," Whitmer said. "Every year, hundreds are killed in these highway work zone crashes. Together, we've got to aspire to bring more work zone crashes and deaths down, ultimately to zero."

Organizers paid tribute Tuesday to Michigan road workers who were struck and killed on the job in 2020; Zach Morisette of St. Clair Shores, Jeremy Zeitz of Gladwin, Nicholas Sada and Davyon Rose, both of Lansing, Allen Craig of Richmond and Larry Leonarduzzi of Gaastra, a town in Iron County in the Upper Peninsula. 

Last year in Michigan, there were 4,900 work zone crashes. There were 15 fatalities, 69 serious injuries and 785 injury crashes, state transportation officials said. 

During Tuesday's event, the National Work Zone Memorial from Washington D.C. was on display, documenting the names of more than 1,500 individuals killed in work zones throughout the country. 

A copy of a picture of avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Brandyn Spychalski, shot after a press conference in Clinton Township on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Spychalski is pictured holding his daughter, Khloe. He was struck by a truck in 2017 while working on a road project and died from complications from the crash in January of 2020.

Michigan State Police Col. Joseph Gasper said speeding and distracted driving are too common and in work zones that combination can be deadly. He said MSP officers will be conducting enforcement not only in work zones but in areas one or two miles ahead of those zones to deter speeding, people following each other too closely and distracted driving.

"As drivers, we all need to do our part. We need to watch for signs and prepare for slowdowns," he said. "But most importantly, when you're behind the wheel you must give your task of driving your undivided attention."

Fonzi-Lynch said the penalty for the 21-year-old driver who struck her son was a couple weekends in jail and a small fine. She said she believes more should be done to hold careless drivers accountable. 

Hackel said the awareness campaign is about preventing tragedies like what Fonzi-Lynch and her family have endured. It's critically important for his county, which has millions in road work projects in over 100 work zones, he said. 

"To try to take care of all of these areas and to try to police everyone there is a very difficult thing to do," Hackel said. "It takes a while to fix these roads. People need to be patient and tolerant of the road workers."