Police visible at road work sites, for good reason

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

July 04, 1994

Station an armed police officer at major highway work sites. Is that a way to keep apathetic road crews on their toes?

If that's not the reason state troopers -- and marked state police cruisers -- can be found at most highway construction projects, then what is? Robert Schwartz of Owings Mills wants Intrepid Commuter to find out.

"One weekend I passed two highway construction projects along I-695 [that had police cruisers] with their overhead lights on," Mr. Schwartz says. "Couldn't we simply buy some flashing lights for the highway maintenance trucks so people will think a state trooper is there?

"You have to wonder whether they're really necessary when the state police could be better used, out doing their fine job with criminal matters."

Perhaps, but you have to admit it keeps "Port-A-Potty" theft from highway construction sites to a minimum.

Actually, there have been some tangible benefits to having troopers around road construction sites, a practice that started in 1988 to protect motorists and work crews. Five years ago, 19 people died in more than 2,300 traffic accidents in Maryland road work zones. By 1992, the numbers were down to 14 fatalities and slightly fewer than 1,600 accidents.

Denny Lockard, a traffic engineer with the State Highway Administration, says that the troopers are off duty and are paid by the SHA. They are not kept at projects at all times -- just at critical hours such as when two lanes of the Beltway or an exit ramp have to be closed.

"They are there during hazardous situations," Mr. Lockard says. "They're not here just to look good."

By law, SHA trucks can't use the red and blue police lights. But even if they did, they probably wouldn't be effective, Mr. Lockard says. Last year, the SHA tried using unmanned, out-of-service state police cruisers in work zones. The program proved to be a bust.

"People could see the car had an SHA license plate, and it was an older model," Mr. Lockard says.

Keeping police in work zones doesn't cost much. The SHA spends more money planting trees.

Officers are paid at time-and-a-half of their regular wage. The SHA expects to spend $150,000 on the program this year.

The benefits are less easily quantified. Troopers rarely ticket speeders, but they slow traffic.

When motorists see a police officer and a police cruiser with flashing lights, drivers just naturally put on the brakes. That probably makes construction areas safer.

Idiot brake light, a dashboard mystery

No two ways about it, Richard Yates' van is acting weird.

How else can you describe a year-old Dodge 350 Ram Van with an "idiot" light that's acting like, well, an idiot?

Whenever Mr. Yates drives his vehicle past Gate 2 at the Westinghouse Electric Corp. facility in Linthicum, the --board warning light for his anti-lock braking system switches on.

No, it doesn't happen at Gate 1 or Gate 3 -- or any other place he has ever driven the van for that matter. It happens for just for a second or so as he's driving at Gate 2 on Route 170 near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"I'm just curious to find out why that is," says the Woodlawn resident who commutes to a job in Hanover. "Maybe it has something to do with the make of the vehicle."

Normally, Intrepid Commuter would consider this a fact-finding job more suitable for the Magliozzi brothers of NPR's "Car Talk," but we were intrigued. So we contacted the good folks at the Chrysler Corp. and Westinghouse for answers.

Chrysler engineers in Auburn Hills, Mich., say the problem probably involves radio-frequency radiation. Certain types of electrical equipment are sensitive to radio frequency energy.

There's nothing magic about the stuff. Home appliances -- microwave ovens, toasters and such -- put off small amounts of it. Airlines have restricted use of electronic devices for fear they could mess up cockpit equipment.

Alex Tsigdinos, a Chrysler spokesman, said vans are shielded from the normal levels of radio waves, but what the van is encountering at Gate 2 may be unusual.

"What's probably happening is that it's causing the ABS computer's diagnostics program [to say] something's wrong," Mr. Tsigdinos says. "If you slammed on your brakes at that moment, it might affect the brake system."

The Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group at BWI often tests radar, which emits a form of radio-frequency radiation, and other electronic systems for defense projects. Could there be some connection?

Jack Martin, a Westinghouse spokesman, confirms that the company performs some product testing at the BWI facility, but would not speculate on what might be causing the ABS light to turn on specifically at Gate 2.

"All I can say is that the RF levels generated by testing inside our complex are well within federal guidelines," Mr. Martin says. "We've never received complaints from anyone else regarding this."

Meanwhile, both organizations suggest Mr. Yates take his van to the closest Dodge dealership and get it checked out.

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