Traffic slows, thanks to model troopers

August 28, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Behold the ideal state troopers: They're young, indestructible, never complain and think nothing of working 15 straight shifts without so much as a coffee break.

Admittedly, they don't make arrests. They don't drive a car particularly well and aren't much for conversation. Even their colleagues find them a bit stiff.

"Kind of cold," says 1st Sgt. James L. Ballard Jr., their boss.

"Kind of hard," says Tfc. Paul Quill, a colleague.

They're the dummies who help enforce the speed limit on Interstate 95. But don't hold that against them. Even mannequins in police uniforms and Stetsons deserve a measure of respect.

"They produce more than some of our troopers," Sergeant Ballard says with a smile.

To augment a roster of 42 officers, the state police barracks in Cecil County last spring enlisted the help of two decidedly inanimate types -- two female mannequins donated by a local clothing store.

Instead of modeling the latest haute couture, the dummies' job is sit in the driver's seat of old patrol cars and fool motorists into thinking they might give chase.

"The troopers who drive past always make a point to wave at her," said Trooper Quill. "It's the big joke."

Stationed for weeklong intervals at various locations in the 53-mile-long John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway between the Baltimore Beltway and the Delaware state line, the so-called "drone" cars are proving their mettle.

The effect is almost magical. Fearful of getting ticketed, drivers slow down when they spot a police car in the median, particularly with the shadowy form of an officer visible and the car's radar unit activating their radar detectors.

"You can see it's effective just by sitting in the area for two or three minutes and watching the cars hit their brake lights," said Lt. Bernard B. Foster, the barracks' commander.

"If those cars slow down traffic by 15 percent, that's 15 percent we don't have to do," he said. "It's even great when people in the opposite direction flash their lights and warn the other drivers."

Of course, speeders are no dummies themselves. Out-of-towners may be fooled, but regular commuters can tell that a car sitting day and night at the same spot along the highway is no threat.

So this month, police have added a new wrinkle. They've been periodically throwing the dummy in the back seat and putting a real trooper in its place, or setting up a speed trap a little farther down the road.

Troopers consider such sneaky tactics as fair in the never-ending battle against speeders. "We don't guarantee that it's always a mannequin," Lieutenant Foster said.

Actually, the mannequin's presence was originally intended not to fool people, but to put them at ease. When the barracks started using empty drone vehicles last year, they would periodically get phone calls from worried motorists who thought something bad had happened to the trooper inside.

The death of state police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf, who was gunned down during a routine traffic stop along I-95 in Howard County three years ago, has raised public awareness to such dangers, Lieutenant Foster said.

So now the drone cars come not only with a dummy but with a sign in the window explaining the situation and how to call for emergency help.

"We're not trying to generate fear," said Sgt. Michael J. Fischer of the state police field operations bureau in Pikesville. "We just want to generate a perception that people could get caught."

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