Are roads more dangerous? Highway workers call for caution

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First responders load a casket that symbolizes slain highway workers onto a tow truck traveling to Chicago from Oshkosh. The event at Noltes Service & 24-Hour Towing, 2850 Jackson St., aimed to remind drivers to slow down.(Photo: Nate Beck / USA TODAY NETWORK-WIsconsin)Buy Photo

OSHKOSH – It was a clear morning in October 2014 when Nate Walsh got the call: a car was stranded on Interstate 94, three miles from Osseo. So Walsh did his job.

He drove his tow truck to the scene and began hooking up the car to clear the shoulder. Then tragedy struck: A swerving pickup smashed into Walsh’s truck and killed him as he bent down to fasten the car. RELATED:Widow of highway worker pleads for safety[1]

Katie Walsh, Nate’s wife, said there was little excuse and little explanation for the crash. The driver, Steven Dolan, of La Crosse, simply wasn’t paying attention. “There was nothing in the way, there was nothing obstructing the view,” Katie said. “Every other car moved over but him.

It’s always a risk you take every time you go there.”

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Katie Walsh, husband of Nate Walsh, a tow truck driver killed in 2014, speaks to a crowd during Spirit Ride, an event that urges drivers to be more cautious on highways. (Photo: Nate Beck / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Katie Walsh spoke Thursday before a group of highway workers gathered to remember her husband and others killed while working on Wisconsin’s roadways. Thursday’s event was a stop on the Spirit Ride, a traveling rally where 250 towing companies from across the country carry a decorated casket between cities. They assembled in the parking lot of Nolte’s Service & 24-hour Towing, 2850 Jackson St.

Their message to drivers is simple: slow down and move over. For Hank Mitchell, a 12-year veteran of the Winnebago County Highway Department, the state’s highways seem to be getting more dangerous. In May 2015, Gov.

Scott Walker signed a law that raised Wisconsin’s maximum speed limit to 70 mph. Too often, Mitchell sees drivers who are more preoccupied with smartphones than the road in front of them. Many drivers refuse to be cautious, despite the orange lights and reflective vests that tow truck drivers and highway workers wear, Mitchell said.

“I think people give more respect to law enforcement, red and blue lights, than they do to tow trucks or the highway department or any of the contractors on the roads with orange lights,” Mitchell said. “Drivers think, ‘Oh, they can’t give me a ticket.'” Nonprofit Kars4Kids recently ranked[2] Wisconsinites among the rudest drivers in the country, often speeding up to prevent passing, acting aggressively toward slow drivers and swiping parking spaces. Aware of the danger, tow truck companies are doing more to keep their drivers safe, said Chuck Anderson, owner of Nolte’s.

Though none of Anderson’s drivers have been injured on the road, he said there have been close calls. Passing cars have clipped mirrors off his tow trucks. All employees wear reflective clothing, day or night, and Anderson requires all of his drivers to exit the truck through the passenger-side door — away from traffic — every single time.

“We’re always on our toes watching,” Anderson said. “We need to be paying attention out there as much as we are doing our job.”

Reach Nate Beck at 920-858-9657 or nbeck@gannett.com; on Twitter: @NateBeck9[3][4]

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References

  1. ^ Widow of highway worker pleads for safety (www.thenorthwestern.com)
  2. ^ recently ranked (www.thenorthwestern.com)
  3. ^ nbeck@gannett.com (www.thenorthwestern.com)
  4. ^ @NateBeck9 (twitter.com)

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