When Donald W. Hindenlang was hired as a patrol deputy at the countySheriff's Office in January, he thought his would be a job of tracking down burglars, robbers and rapists.
But the 23-year-old deputy last week found himself trying to identify the guilty party in a routine traffic accident.
Hindenlang is one of 77 deputies who have been trained to take over accident investigations on county roads from the state police under an agreement signed by Harford and state administrators two weeks ago. The state police will continue to investigate accidents on state roads and Interstate 95.
Deputies like Hindenlang should get plenty of experience at the task. In 1990, there were 754 accidents on county roads, according to state statistics.
The sheriff's patrol deputies have investigated 31 accidents so far. On Tuesday, Hindenlang was investigating his second accident in the Sheriff's Office's first week of handling traffic accidents.
The patrolman arrived at the accident scene at the intersection of Joppa Farm and Falconer roads inJoppa. He found one car in the middle of the road, another car partially on the sidewalk and two people injured.
One of the drivers complained of a headache and dizziness. Apassenger in the other car struck her head on the windshield. The patrolman called for an ambulance.
Hindenlang's investigation showed that one driver was stopped onJoppa Farm Road to turn left onto Falconer Road when her Ford LTD Crown Victoria was struck in the rear by a Buick Skylark driven by a Baltimore man.
"The guy wasn't paying attention," said Hindenlang, aformer military policeman at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "He tried to swerve around her, but didn't make it."
The driver of the Buick, Charles L. McDonald of Baltimore, was cited for negligent driving.
As the patrolman interviewed the drivers, Sgt. Wesley J. Picha arrived. He inspected damage to the vehicles and took pictures of the intersection. Picha, the supervisor of the sheriff's new traffic division, also checked the turn signals, brake lights and tires of the cars.
During the hour that Picha and Hindenlang spent at the crash site, the injured were transported to Fallston General Hospital for treatment, traffic was routed around the wrecked cars, the cars were towed away, and the patrolman began putting his report together.
Although the accident is a routine one, it is a new routine for the deputies at the Sheriff's Office. The investigations mean extra work for patrolmen, but the deputies welcome the new duties, Picha said.
"(An accident investigation) is a monumental task," said Picha, an 18-year police veteran. "It's like a criminal investigation. It takes time to get all the information."
"There's a lot of talent in this agency," the 41-year-old sergeant said. "(The accident investigations) lay more work and more responsibility on the deputies, but it's a necessary part of a law enforcement agency."
Sheriff Robert E. Comes said the accident investigations will transform his agency into a "full-service department." Comes out lined his plans for the traffic unit during his campaign for sheriff last year.
State police Superintendent Elmer H. Tippett said troopers at the Benson barracks will have more time for patrols and investigating collisions on state roads now that the Sheriff's Office is taking some of the accident investigations. There were 1,750 accidents on state roads in Harford last year, in addition to the accidents on county roads.
When the Benson barracks handled all accidents, the agency often had more collisions to investigate than on-duty troopers to handle the calls, Tippett said.
The county's growth during the last decade has increased traffic on Harford roads, while the number of patrol troopers has not changed, Tippett said. The barracks has 35 of 62 troopers assigned to traffic duties.
County deputies directed traffic around the vehicles involvedin an accident and assisted injured motorists and passengers, Picha said. The deputies often arrived at accidents 30 minutes before statetroopers.
"It seemed senseless for us to go to these accidents and just stand by," Picha said. "It was a lot of wasted manpower."