I dutifully trekked the half-mile or so to the North Hall of ConExpo to cover the much-publicized appearance of U.S. Dept. of  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood with the Common Ground Alliance, where he was apparently to make novel new announcements regarding pipeline safety.

While my colleague Tony llia took notes, I began filming, using a camera I'd never used before and had acquired from a departing colleague half an hour before. Just before LaHood spoke, the camera shut off on me.

Cursing under my breath, I whipped out my own notebook. And what did LaHood say? "Dial 811 before you dig. Dial 811."

The logo on the podium said exactly that. He smiled and left.

I made a snarky comment to Tony, and a rugged-looking older gentleman looked at me. "Are you a journalist?" he asked.

I said yes, and he said gravely, "This is important."

He was Steve Robertson, a North Carolina contractor who runs Robertson's Backhoe Service. He dials 811 before performing any excavation work, and within 48 hours someone comes out to ensure that there are no hidden utilities or other obstructions in the way.

How much would you say you've saved on construction accidents? I asked him. "Hundreds, thousands?"

"It could be in the millions," he replied. "If you cut the wrong thing..."

He urged me to talk to
Brad Barringer, CEO, B.R.S. Inc., Richfield, N.C, one of the Common Ground Alliance founders. Barringer and alliance president Bob Kipp had stood beside LaHood at the conference but had not spoken.

Barringer and Kipp say that the 10-year-old alliance, driven by its member committees, attracted 670 attendees from around the world at its 2010 annual meeting—about double over the previous year.

Several countries have or plan to adopt their own 811-style number, or the alliance's Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT), which aims to compile comprehensive data on incidents where damages -- or worse -- occurred due to excavation hitting unknown obstacles.

The alliance is still pushing for more visibility, so that anyone planning an excavation -- be it on a homeowner's property or a major project -- will know to call. Some states have adopted high-tech tools like GPS at their 811 call centers.

I would have possibly shrugged this press conference off, frankly, if not for running into Robertson and then actually talking to the guys who run the ship. When a small private contractor, especially in these tough times, tells me how important something is to him, that's worth a hundred political press conferences.