Police crackdown on I-70 decreases number of accidents

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A crackdown on speeding and aggressive driving on Interstate 70 by state police in Washington County has resulted in a drastic decrease in vehicle accidents and may have saved lives, law enforcement officials said.

During May, there were seven accidents along the 22-mile stretch between the north junction of Interstate 79 and the Westmoreland County line at the Speers Bridge — which represents a 72 percent decrease in the average of 25 accidents per month.

State police announced in April that they would step up patrols of that portion of the highway, which had been identified as particularly dangerous due to speeding, aggressive driving and an increase in truck traffic related to Marcellus Shale gas well drilling.  An estimated 40,000 drivers use the route daily.

On his daily commute to work, District Attorney Eugene Vittone bore witness to increasingly perilous conditions.

“If you’re doing 60 [mph] you’re getting blown by,” said Mr. Vittone.  “It’s not just the speeding; it’s the tailgating that’s scary.”

Mr. Vittone was so concerned, he began writing to trucking companies when he saw their drivers disregarding the law or driving excessively fast.  Police cited one driver he spotted earlier this year after Mr. Vittone took down his license plate and registration number when he witnessed the propane truck weaving in and out of traffic, nearly causing several collisions.

“Have you seen what happens when a propane truck catches fire? That’s pretty dangerous,” he said.  “He was just flying down the interstate —-- that’s a pretty big risk.”

Owners at the family-owned trucking business were distressed to learn about the driver’s behavior, he said.

The crackdown was led by state police patrol section commander Lt. Douglas Bartoe, who said aerial surveillance made a pivotal difference in snaring scofflaws and getting them to slow down and drive less aggressively.  

“The road is very narrow and there’s very few places to do enforcement,” he said of the 22-mile stretch.  “With the increase in truck traffic in Washington County from the gas industry, we’ve noticed a trend of crashes and we also had some construction zones.”

Lt. Bartoe said the state police use an airplane with a trooper inside, tracking traffic and aggressive drivers.  When a driver is clocked speeding, driving erratically or too close to other cars, the airborne trooper radios a partner on the ground who makes the traffic stop.  

During May, troopers issued 479 citations for speeding, vehicle violations, following too closely or turning inappropriately.  Lt. Bartoe said troopers warned 375 drivers and they stopped another 350 commercial vehicles for safety inspections.

“In the month of May we were really trying to prove a point,” Lt. Bartoe said.  “We were looking for aggressive drivers.”

Mr. Vittone said he has evidence —-- anecdotal at least — that the effort has worked.

"I’m not writing down as many license plate numbers now,“ he said.

The crackdown coincided with several programs being promoted and paid for by the state Transportation Department, such as Click it or Ticket, which aims to educate motorists about the importance of seat belts.

Lt. Bartoe said state police plan to execute another PennDOT program, Operation Yellow Jacket, within days.  

That program uses a trooper disguised as a construction worker in a yellow PennDOT truck, monitoring drivers near construction zones.

PennDOT safety press officer Jay Ofsanik said there are other state funds, including grants set aside to combat aggressive driving, available to Lt. Bartoe in his efforts.

“Any crash is a potential for someone to get injured, so it’s really a positive start for the summer season,” Mr. Ofsanik said. “The fact that they were able to get those numbers down is a real positive.”

Mr. Ofsanik said there isn’t much construction along the corridor this summer, though motorists should keep an eye out for an upcoming major project involving a new diverging diamond intersection near the exit with Murtland Road in Washington.  That project is slated to begin later this year.

Lt. Bartoe said police will continue using the aircraft throughout the summer to keep scofflaws in check.

"The message we want to get out there is that people need to slow down,“ Lt. Bartoe said.

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.




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