OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma’s fallen highway workers were remembered during a ceremony Friday.

The ceremony was held at Oklahoma Department of Transportation headquarters to honor 72 Oklahoma highway workers who were killed on the job.

The ceremony was the final event of “Safety: It’s Not Just About You,” a two-week work zone safety awareness campaign.

“I wish we didn’t have to be here, but I just I think this is a great reminder that these are people these people, our families, they have kids, mothers, you know, fathers,” said Jeremy Smart, Kickapoo Turnpike Supervisor. “So, just, if you see flashing lights, just slow down. I see too many people not paying attention.”

Smart and Kenny Baker both spoke during the ceremony about how they were almost struck by a vehicle in a work zone.

Baker was directing nighttime traffic off Turner Turnpike at the Stroud exit on Jan. 27 while emergency personnel removed vehicle debris from a crash during a snow storm. Smart was in his pickup, which was blocking a lane, to make a phone call to his crew.

Photo goes with story
Oklahoma highway workers gather in honor of fallen colleagues.

That’s when Baker saw a semi-tractor trailer pull around the line of vehicles waiting to exit, then accelerate into lanes that were blocked by two Oklahoma Turnpike Authority pickups protecting highway workers.

“I kept thinking he was going to stop. He had come around to pass all the people getting off. He apparently didn’t see me with my flashlight or our vehicles (with flashing lights). He got up on us quick. The only thing I knew to do was to scream and tell Jeremy to get out of the truck,” Baker said.

“I just happened to have my door open and I hear Kenny yell, ‘Jeremy, get out! Get out! Get out!,” Smart said. “I could hear his voice — it was serious.”

Both men leapt over the center median barrier wall to safety.

“I saw my truck get annihilated going down the highway by a semi that never slammed on his brakes, never touched the brakes or anything,” Smart said.

Baker and Smart survived, but others have not been as fortunate.

Ninety-one people, including one ODOT worker, were killed and 1,455 people were injured in more than 8,000 collisions in Oklahoma work zones in the past five years, according to ODOT officials.

Twenty people were killed from January-September 2021 in work zones, according to preliminary figures.

Work zone fatalities did not drop during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when traffic volumes significantly decreased. Nineteen motorists died from work zone crashes that year.

State officials urge drivers to be cautious and mindful of highway workers, especially this summer when there will be more than 275 active work zones across Oklahoma.

“Any crash that results in serious injury or fatality affects more than just the driver. The choices made behind the wheel can affect your family or someone else’s family, friends and community forever,” said Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz. “We want everyone to go home safely at the end of each day and through a partnership between workers and drivers, we can accomplish that goal.”