The treatment of public works employees has been on my mind since I was a little girl. My father, the public works director for New London, N.H., has worked in the field since 1973. I've known a department full of people whom I never thought of as public works employees but rather as friends, co-workers, and family.
I am now a young woman, and I've defended these people over misconceptions about their work since Dec. 1, 2005, when the New London Highway Department lost a member of its family: Twenty-year-old Ryan Haynes was filling potholes (a 10-minute job at the most) on Old Main Street—standing behind his 1-ton truck—when he was killed by an oncoming van. The driver, John Harding, told police that his visibility was obscured by glare from windshield frost.
In his report, State Trooper Andrew Lubrano wrote that Ryan failed to use proper signage to redirect traffic. The statement seemed believable, except that the U.S. DOT's Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices states that in situations in which the vehicle will not be standing in one place for more than 10 minutes, a single vehicle with proper warning lights provides adequate warning for approaching drivers.
So why was Ryan being blamed for his own death?
Harding told the trooper that he'd scraped less than one-third of the windshield before heading out into traffic and was looking out the still-frosty passenger-side lower corner of the wind shield to make sure he didn't drive into a ditch. The penalty for such an offense is a $75 fine.
In the past year, two New Hampshire police officers were killed in the line of duty: Michael Briggs of Manchester and Bruce McKay of Franconia. Although they deserved a funeral to honor their service to the community, I'm not sure it called for Gov. John Lynch to present a speech, a parade, and a televised broadcast that consumed much of the day's television news coverage.
Ryan received a 30-second announcement on WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H.; 20-second segments on various radio stations; and local newspaper coverage that essentially placed blame for his death on the lack of signage.
“An attack on any member of law en forcement is an attack on us all,” Lynch stated in his speech at Briggs' funeral. Why is that not true for Ryan? He helped to make sure that every motorist, jogger, and biker who used local roads could do so safely. Officers Briggs and McKay did the same thing, just in a different capacity.
Two years on, Ryan's case still sits at the state Attorney General's office as it mulls over prosecuting Harding. His license was suspended for two years with good behavior. Ryan's parents, many friends, and co-workers asked the Attorney General to review the case once again. We've heard nothing since.
The trooper stated in his report that the glare from the frost and Harding's strained efforts to see the edge of the road caused the accident. Harding didn't intend to kill anyone that day, but he did. He should be charged with negligent homicide; instead, the day of the accident the Attorney General's Office decided against issuing charges.