Newburgh — After the accident, state police investigators decided the truck driver might have been telling the truth, that he really did slow the rig to 30 mph when he entered the work zone on Interstate 84.

But he still hit and killed three state Department of Transportation laborers who were patching potholes as part of a 13-man crew with three flagmen, six vehicles and three 5-by-3-foot work zone signs.

What match were they for a young trucker who couldn't control an overloaded flatbed with faulty brakes?

The accident, at 8:55 a.m. on June 5, 1979, in the eastbound lane of Interstate 84 near the Route 52 overpass, remains the DOT's most graphic example of just how dangerous routine highway maintenance work is. No other work zone accident, before or since, has claimed as many lives.

"If anything, it's more dangerous out there now than it was then," said Ray Kelly, a DOT highway maintenance supervisor and a survivor of the 1979 accident, as he contemplated the start of the summer driving season. "There's more and more traffic and there's more and more distractions — starting with cell phones."

The AAA estimates a record number of Americans — 38 million — will hit the road this holiday weekend, despite record-high gas prices. And everywhere they go, they will encounter delays and detours associated with highway construction and maintenance — the kind of work that Kelly has done for 30 years.

Kelly joined the DOT in 1977, after he graduated from John S. Burke High School, and was the youngest and newest laborer in the crew assigned to I-84 on the day of the accident. Many of his co-workers were old enough to be his father and have long since retired.

"I'm a Mets fan and one of the guys was a Yankees fan and we were going at it about the game and suddenly this voice (in my head) says, 'Ray, turn around,' and I saw the truck — you don't hear anything because there's so much noise from traffic — and then he was gone," said Kelly, as he spread his arms to show the short distance between the two men.

Kelly rarely talks about the accident, preferring to allow the memorial that the DOT erected to three men at the entrance to its Newburgh offices to tell the story.

But the laborers he supervises today as they mow grass, pick up litter, collect dead animals, replace guardrails and fill potholes know exactly where the boss is coming from when he says: "You can't turn your back on traffic. You have to be aware of traffic at all times; you have to watch out for each other."

The advice, Kelly added, is applicable to everybody whose work puts them in harm's way on the region's highways, where traffic volume and traffic speed are higher than ever. In 1979, for example, 10 million vehicles crossed the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, which sits a short distance from the accident site. Last year, 25 million vehicles did.

"People don't slow down, not enough, when they enter a work zone," said Kelly. "They just don't get it, unless they've stood on the road and experienced the speed of passing traffic. There's just no contest between a human being and a car or truck at almost any speed."

In fact, speeding is such an issue that New York doubled the fine for speeding in work zones in 1995 and then mandated a 60-day license suspension for drivers convicted of two or more speeding violations in work zones in 2005.

Another law fines drivers for using a cell phone without a headset, but Kelly thinks having two hands on the wheel isn't enough in a work zone or on a busy highway in general.

"People yakking on their cell phones are oblivious to what they're doing," said Kelly. "It's pretty scary — and it's not just cell phones that are distracting them. Cars are made to be driven, not to be offices or fast-food restaurants or entertainment centers. All it takes is one small distraction for a second, not even a second, and you can kill yourself or somebody else."