Fatal work zone crashes double in state; SW Washington county sees fourth highest crash rate 


Valerie Bergmann saw headlights in her rearview mirror just before a car traveling 70 mph rammed into her maintenance truck on the side of Interstate 5 in Vancouver.

Bergmann, of Woodland, and her five co-workers have returned to work after being injured in that Jan. 21 evening crash, but anxieties remain.

As the upcoming dry season approaches — along with nighttime maintenance work ramping up — Bergmann is preparing to head back to the front lines.

“It’s traumatizing,” she said. “I have to tell myself I’m going to be OK, but I’m really not sure if I’m going to be OK.”

Bergmann and her fellow injured co-workers didn’t sign up for battle when they were hired by Washington Department of Transportation to keep roadsides clean and pot holes filled.

But that is the reality for people working alongside roadways across the state; the Department of Transportation reports the number of fatal work zone crashes has doubled from 2022 to 2023, totaling 10.

Officials are pleading for drivers to stay focused, follow speed limits and allow workers to return home after a day’s work.

“Think of it as yourselves,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste during a Thursday press conference. “If you were in that construction zone, what would you want others to do?”

Wrecks rise in Southwest Washington

Bergmann tried to warn her fellow crewmembers inside the truck before the collision, but the 2021 Woodland High School graduate said she didn’t have time.

Beth Blankenship, also of Woodland, heard just a snippet of Bergmann’s warning before the crash that she said injured her lower back and knees, injuries that still persist today.

Blankenship, a volunteer firefighter with Woodland’s Cowlitz County District 1, was too dazed to help her fellow workers, but Bergmann and Brandon McGraw, also firefighters at the same district, pitched in.

They, along with co-worker Jason Lattig — a volunteer firefighter at Amboy’s Clark County District 10 — even helped the driver who hit them: Yupada Fontung, set to face trial April 29 in Clark County for vehicular assault and driving under the influence.

Since then, the state reports another Washington state transportation worker was hit in Southwest Washington by a driver suspected to be under the influence, for a total of seven so far in 2024.

The work zone accidents are a regular occurrence, often at speeds of 100 mph or more with drivers on their phones, said Washington State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. Four work zone crashes occurred just Monday, he added; three before 10 a.m.

“We cannot keep seeing people being hurt or killed in our work zones,” he said.

The state reports Clark County — where the January crash occurred — recorded the fourth-highest number of Washington work zone-related crashes in 2023, behind only King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Driving in a way that can endanger those in a work zones isn’t just a ticket in Washington, but a gross misdemeanor with a 60-day license suspension.

Highway crashes affect other jobs too. In March, Washington State Patrol Trooper Christopher Gadd was fatally struck by a suspected impaired driver along I-5 in Marysville.

The owner of Longview’s Anderson Towing, Arthur Anderson, was struck and killed while helping customers along I-5 in April 2021 south of Castle Rock, and Kalama’s Raymond Mitchell of TLC Towing was struck and killed five months later helping a driver along I-5 near Kalama.

The Washington state transportation crew preparing to fill pot holes that January evening had only been pulled over 90 seconds before the crash occurred. Moments later, and the accident would likely have had a different ending, Blankenship said.

“When you experience a hit of that caliber, it puts a lot of things in perspective,” she said. “Thirty seconds later, it could have been completely different. We could have been out of the vehicle and it would be a totally different story today.”