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New York state lawmakers, local officials promote bill to protect road workers

As the legislative session winds down, New York state officials are promoting legislation meant to protect road workers.

State Senator Jeremy Cooney, a Democrat from Rochester, says the bill would better protect highway workers, motor carrier investigators and motor carrier inspectors by making assaulting them a class D felony. Speaking alongside the leaders of the state Transportation Department and the State Thruway Authority in Albany Monday, Cooney says there has been a spate of incidents involving highway workers lately, including one where a worker was struck and killed in the Rochester area in May.

“We've seen over 40 reported incidents of abuse and harassment and assault of our valued state workforce, drivers who come along and hit one of our workers on purpose. People who are using threatening language, throwing items at our employees,” Cooney said.

Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez says while crews are used to severe conditions when it comes to weather, bad drivers are worse, calling hot coffee a mild example of things workers have had thrown at them.

“It's motorists intentionally trying to hit our workers with their cars. It’s motorists who get out of their cars, threaten our workers, brandish weapons, direct racial slurs, and in some cases physically assault our workforce,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez recalled a September 2023 incident in which a flagger was struck twice in Broome County, a flagger in Queens having his foot run over two months later, and a driver who went around an attenuator truck and assaulted a worker on the Long Island Expressway this past April. She says slow down and leave workers alone.

The state’s Move Over Law was expanded in March to include all vehicles stopped on the sides of roads.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, a Democrat, says, while people constantly call her office asking for pothole repairs, workers can’t fix them if they’re getting run over.

“If you want this work done, you need to ensure that you are slowing down, that you're not distracted. And that the frustration that you may feel, because you're about to be late for an appointment, or you feel as though you're being inconvenienced, you need to put that to the side and recognize these are hardworking individuals,” Sheehan said.

Joe Donahue is Secretary-Treasurer of the Public Employees Federation. He says his union backs the state’s efforts with assaults on highway workers on the rise.

“Why exclude hardworking staff from the protections already enjoyed by 20 other transportation related job titles including train operators, ticket inspectors, conductors, signal persons, school crossing guards, traffic enforcement officers, and traffic enforcement agents, just to name a few?” Donahue asked.

Outgoing Glenville Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle, Executive Director of the New York State Association of Towns, says he’s seen the issue up close and personal during his 17 years in town office.

“There have been many, many occasions where, even on the town level, in the intimacy of a neighborhood, where people have assaulted, attacked, said awful things and intimated very awful things to our highway workers over the years,” Koetzle said.

Tim Higgins is a General Manager with paving and construction company Callanan Industries, which does contract work for the DOT and Thruway. He says conditions have worsened for workers, especially after the isolation of the COVID pandemic.

“My heart's never raced faster than being in a live lane of traffic on the freeway at night. That's the scariest- the most scared I've ever been in my life was setting up a pattern on the New York state Thruway,” Higgins said.

A spokesperson for Governor Hochul says she will review the legislation if it passes both houses of the Legislature.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.