Utility seeks same highway protections afforded to police

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – National Grid officials want utility trucks afforded the same protection from motorists on state highways as police cars and highway maintenance vehicles, which are buffered by the “move over law.”

Passage of the 2009 law followed a rash of deadly collisions with police vehicles pulled over on highways. A bill (H 3054) filed by Rep. Hank Naughton would include utility vehicles under the law, demanding that drivers slow down and move a lane over “if practicable” when approaching a stationary emergency vehicle on a highway.

John Cameron, National Grid’s safety program manager for U.S. operations, argued in favor of the change at a Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday.

“One thing we can’t control is the motorists,” Cameron said. He said, “We’ve seen this Move Over Law as a next step to prevent serious injuries or fatalities.”

Under prodding from House Transportation Chairman William Straus, Cameron agreed that distracted driving, including potentially cell phone use, is a factor as “momentary loss of situational awareness” can lead to an accident when driving right past utility work.

Seeking cost savings, the Patrick administration changed highway regulations to allow for civilian flaggers, rather than police details, on certain state roads for public works projects.

National Grid Government Affairs Director Joe Newman said National Grid doesn’t use flaggers in Massachusetts, and uses a police detail except when an emergency requires work to begin before a detail officer can be secured.

Newman also said the utility company is governed by the policies in the cities and towns where it operates, and he said that in emergencies when a detail officer is unavailable utility workers use cones and signage to protect themselves from traffic.

“If they can get away with using nobody, that’s what they’ll use,” contended Ned Merrick, the retired chief of the Plainville police who is now director of government affairs for the Massachusetts State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Newman declined to comment on Merrick’s charge.

Asked about the success of the flagger policy, Newman said, “We operate under the rules that we have right now.”

Additional costs for public works projects are borne by taxpayers, and utilities costs are paid by ratepayers.

Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican with experience in the construction business, said contractors who work on state roads have told him police details don’t always show up as scheduled.

“If a detail doesn’t show up and they’re out there ready to lay down asphalt, they can’t do anything until the detail shows up, so sometimes they have to wait a couple hours, which they eat up in their end,” Howitt told the News Service. “So when they bid, in their mind they have to allow a certain amount of money to allow for details not to show up, which also increases the cost.”

Merrick said that in Plainville he secured a bylaw change instituting a $200-per-day fine for construction workers who failed to use a police detail, and he said he tempered enforcement of the requirement.

“You can’t go out there on a dead-end street and demand that National Grid get a detail. That’s foolish,” Merrick said. Merrick said if there was an emergency gas leak, he would send a police officer on duty to monitor the construction site until the utility secured a detail officer.

Police officials argue an officer on detail duty offers greater safety benefits than a civilian flagger. Merrick also criticized the civilian flagger program for failing to achieve significant cost savings because he said the prevailing wage law ensures hourly rates for flaggers that are comparable to the other highly paid workers at a site.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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