When Aliik Holley heard what happened, he thought it was a joke — a cruel one with no punch line, the kind you tell to ruin someone’s life.
How could his father — a construction worker just months from retirement, a talented cook and gardener, a man who never once sped while driving — have been killed on the job by a speeding driver?
“He was the best dad ever,” Holley said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better person than that.”
Willie Nathaniel Holley, 62, of Rock Island, was struck by a car and killed in September 2016 at a construction zone near Blue Grass, Iowa. The driver was Sebon Reese, an 18-year-old from Davenport who was fleeing police. Reese is now serving a 15-year sentence for homicide and eluding police.
While that case was a high-speed chase, it highlights the many dangers construction workers and public safety officials face while working on the roads. In 2019, at least 16 Illinois State Police squad cars have been struck, many as a result of drivers failing to move over for emergency vehicles. That’s more than double the number struck in 2018, according to Sgt. Christopher Watson, south deputy chief for the ISP Public Information Office.
Some are violations of Scott’s Law, or the “Move Over” law, that requires motorists to reduce speed and, if possible, change lanes when approaching an emergency vehicle. Emergency vehicles include police cars, firetrucks and ambulances; tow trucks and construction equipment; and cars driven by members of the public who have activated their emergency flashing lights.
Several state agencies are working together to counter the uptick in violations. Gov. J.B. Pritzker proclaimed last week “Work Zone Safety Awareness Week” in Illinois. The effort was part of a larger campaign between the Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois State Police, Illinois Tollway, and construction workers.
“My office is on the side of the road. That’s where I conduct business,” said Watson. “Now it goes back to the public. Help us do our job.”
For people who work alongside roads, the issue is personal. Three state troopers have died this year after being struck by vehicles.
“It’s been 66 years since we’ve lost this many troopers in one year, and it’s only April,” Watson said.
Two of the state troopers were killed in Scott’s Law violations.
“Their deaths were completely preventable and avoidable,” said Dan Rozek, a spokesman with Illinois Tollway.
Rozek and other experts also denounced distracted driving, which on average kills 10 people a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The use of handheld communication devices while driving has been illegal in Illinois since 2014.
“Distracted driving is particularly dangerous in work zones, where drivers can encounter lane closures or new lane configurations, traffic congestion, and rough or uneven pavement,” Rozek said. “The Tollway and its partners also are stressing that drivers in work zones need to obey posted speed limits 24/7, even when workers are not present.”
The rate of distracted driving might be underreported. “People don’t usually fess up to the fact that they were on their phone,” said Juan Pava, safety programs unit chief at IDOT.
Distracted driving, though, is only one of several factors that can increase the incidence of crashes; others are poor weather, nighttime, intoxication, speeding, and variable road conditions. Experts emphasize that the problem is statewide and not confined to any corner or county of Illinois.
According to IDOT, hitting a worker while driving brings a first-time penalty of $375 and a second-offense penalty of $1,000.
Pava’s advice for drivers could fit on a bumper sticker: “Slow down. Buckle up. Phones down. And sober up.”
Or, as Aliik Holley pleaded to drivers passing through construction sites, “Think about the family that worker is going home to."
His father’s killer didn’t. And now Holley must bear the consequences.
“The hurt has passed,” he said. “But I’ll never, ever, ever stop thinking about him.”