State police to crack down on I-70 speeding

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If you like keep the pedal to the metal, you may want to immediately change your driving habits.


Starting Thursday and continuing throughout the summer, state police from Troop B will step up enforcement efforts, particularly on Interstate 70 between the north junction of Interstate 79 near Washington east to Belle Vernon in Westmoreland County.


Lt. Douglas Bartoe, patrol section supervisor for the troop that includes Washington, Greene and Fayette counties as well as a portion of Westmoreland County, said that troopers will be on the ground and in the skies looking for speeding and aggressive drivers.


An increasing number of crashes, including several fatalities, is the reason behind the effort.


“We have started to notice a trend along I-70 of an increasing number of crashes, increasing traffic and an increasing number of motorists driving aggressively,” Bartoe said Tuesday. “In both 2012 and 2013, we responded to more than 300 reportable and nonreportable crashes in the stretch between the north junction and Bentleyville exit. So far in 2014, we have responded to 97 crashes.”


Pennsylvania Department of Transportation crash figures only reflect reportable crashes when injuries or towing of vehicles are involved. Bartoe also looked at nonreportable crashes responded to by troopers.


“And that doesn’t even count the near-misses,” Bartoe said. “You can see skid marks or double sets of skid marks that come from larger trucks along the ramps.”


With the summer travel season coming up and more people hitting the road, as well as construction projects on I-70, Bartoe said there will be extra enforcement.


“We want motorists to know we are out there,” said Capt. Harry Keffer, troop commander. “The goal is to keep people safe, not make money.”


The enforcement effort will include programs already used by police along with methods described by Bartoe as “nontraditional.”


The configuration of I-70 and its narrow berms makes it a challenge to use more contemporary enforcement programs like having a trooper use radar while sitting in a cruiser along the side of the highway or in the median.


“We will be using SPARE (State Police Aerial Reconnaissance Enforcement), which will be tracking not only speeders but aggressive drivers from the air,” Bartoe said. “They will be watching for drivers tailgating and cutting in and out of traffic. Once the violation is observed, a trooper on the ground will be notified so a traffic stop can be made in a safe spot.”


Keffer said the vantage point from an airplane is good for troopers monitoring traffic.


“The troopers see aggressive drivers real well from up there,” Keffer said.


Some troopers may be checking speeds on I-70 from streets, like Lakeview Drive in South Strabane Township, which cross over the highway. Unmarked cars also will be used. Funding for the additional enforcement is available through different programs like Pennsylvania Aggressive Driving Enforcement Program, Click-It-Ot-Ticket and Select Traffic Enforcement Program.


Police also will work with PennDOT through Operation Yellow Jacket, where a trooper sits in a construction truck monitoring traffic and then alerts another trooper to make the stop.


“This offers a way to camouflage the trooper,” said Jay Ofsanik, PennDOT safety press officer for District 12, which includes Washington County. “When you pass, the driver needs to think ‘Is it a PennDOT worker or trooper’ so hopefully they slow down, especially in construction zones.”


Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, who routinely travels that stretch of highway, also has seen an increase in truck traffi and several fatal crashes involving tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles.


Bartoe said Vittone called in information on problem truck drivers to the state police barracks.


“I had an 18-wheeler hauling propane flying, on my tail and doing improper lane changes,” Vittone said of a tractor-trailer that passed his vehicle near the south junction of I-79. “And propane explodes on impact if there is a crash. So you don’t want to be anywhere near it.”


Vittone followed the truck to a Bentleyville truck stop and was able to get information so state police could file charges.


“The company was very upset,” Bartoe said of that driver’s actions. “It is not so much the fine, but the citation affects the safety rating and ability of the company to get contracts.”


Vittone also mailed letters to trucking companies about how their drivers were operating the vehicle.


“People don’t realize how heavy these trucks are and how long it takes them to stop, not to mention how much damage they can do,” Vittone added. “We will be more vigilant following these cases. And these tickets affect the drivers’ commercial driver’s licenses.”


Bartoe said trucks stopped for traffic violations also will be inspected.


“Trucks are in good shape these days,” he said. “The main cause of crashes involving trucks is the driving habits of the operators and not the vehicles.”


Of the reportable crashes on the highway in 2012 and 2013, Bartoe said 20 percent involved trucks.


Bartoe and Vittone will talk with area district judges about the enforcement effort. Bartoe said the judges will be advised that the program is to ensure safety of all motorists.


“We will be putting everything we have for enforcement out there,” Bartoe said. “We just want people to slow down and be safe so we can reduce the number of injuries and fatalities.”


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