Idaho Transportation

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ITD's Cantwell puts kids on road to safety
Receives safety award from highway users' group

At work, Lennett Cantwell drives a bulldozer ... and a snowplow/sander, a forklift, a backhoe, a loader, an excavator and a plain old dump truck. The Idaho Department of Transportation employee from Kamiah received a safety award for helping new drivers learn how to safely drive around working road equipment.

By Kathy Hedberg , the Lewiston Tribune 
KAMIAH - With any luck, the next generation of drivers should include a bunch of them who understand more about highway safety than their parents.
And if that's the case, then Lennett Cantwell, a heavy equipment operator for the Idaho Transportation Department, can claim some of the credit.

For the past eight or nine years, Cantwell, 60, has been driving dump trucks and snowplows to local schools to talk to students about the many tasks performed by her agency and how to be safe around work zones.
"This is a real positive program," Cantwell said. "It's a subject matter that I believe in and the kids need to know that work zones are hazardous places to be."
For her work with students, Cantwell recently received the Idaho Highway Users annual Motorvator Award as the safety person of the year - the first woman to receive such an honor.
Rod Parsells, Cantwell's supervisor, said she is a driving force to promote winter driving, highway and work zone safety to children.
"She does these presentations not only because she enjoys doing them," Parsells said, "but because she believes teaching kids early to think and act safely on and near the highway will, and has, produced positive results."
Cantwell has worked for the transportation department since 1992 - first as an hourly employee, and then full time as part of the District 2 "special crew" that moves throughout the district to work on projects.
At 5 feet 4 inches tall, Cantwell said she is "the shortest and the oldest" member of her crew. But being a woman operating heavy machinery has never been a problem for her.
"I was raised on a ranch in southeastern Montana and I drove trucks" and other equipment, Cantwell said.
She tried a number of other jobs, but when she started working for the department, she realized she had found her niche. She applied for a full-time position at Kamiah in 1997 and when she was hired, the supervisor told her she got the job because she was the most qualified candidate.
Her ranch background helped, but Cantwell, along with other employees, received on-the-job training for handling such things as road graders and excavators. She now feels comfortable at the wheel of any of those machines, she said, and she has benefited from the expertise of many of her co-workers.
"I feel really fortunate that the guys have all really accepted me," she said. "They've been terrific about showing me how to do stuff. I cannot complain one bit about how they've treated me."
Cantwell's interest in teaching young people about the transportation department's work came about after considering the low opinion many in the public hold for the department.
She can't explain why that is, although she speculates it has something to do with people's general dissatisfaction with the condition of public roads.
Reaching youngsters before or just as they're beginning to drive, she realized, was a plum time to teach them about road safety, as well as help burnish the transportation department's image.
"People complain about us and I would really like to see a more positive perception of us," she said.
Her school program targets kindergarten through third grade, and students in drivers education.
Older students learn about driving through work areas, what to expect, what kinds of work is going on and the type and numbers of accidents that occur in work zones.
For the younger children, Cantwell teaches them about road signs and what they mean. Often she is accompanied by a co-worker who adds thoughts on road department work, and all the students get to climb on the big trucks and snowplows that she brings along.
"They have a ball doing that," she said.

Often Cantwell is questioned by the students about being a woman in a non-traditional job. She notes that there are two other women heavy equipment operators in northern Idaho.

"I get quite a few questions: 'How did YOU get the job,' " she said. "And I think that alone is a really great thing because then the girls get to see that they don't have to stay in a traditional job. They can choose other things.

"The boys, they think that's cool."

Cantwell and her husband, Larry, who is a retired truck driver, have 10 children between the two of them. She expects to finish out her career with the transportation department, doing what she likes best.

"You feel really fortunate that you can do something that you enjoy as much as I enjoy driving equipment. And then I think (working in the schools) is just a bonus," she said. She has a large scrapbook filled with thank-you notes and pictures of the students she has worked with.

"One of the things we tell the little kids, 'When you see us out there, be sure you wave. Because we wave back.' It puts a face on the transportation department. It's not just someone in a snowplow or in a truck. Now they know somebody."

Published 4-17-09