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June 20, 2012

State police respond to rise in auto deaths with crackdown

Indiana fatalities creep up after 2009 low mark

INDIANAPOLIS — The next time you see a state transportation department work truck on the highway, you better slow down: It could be an Indiana State Police trooper behind the wheel.

An alarming spike in highway fatalities in Indiana over the past six weeks has triggered a decision by state police to employ “stealth vehicles” — including unmarked police vehicles that look like Indiana Department of Transportation trucks — as part of an aggressive crackdown on speeding motorists and other drivers engaged in risky behavior.

State police say they’re taking a “no excuses” approach to enforcement in their effort to drive down the number of crashes and fatalities.

“If you’ve gotten stopped by a state trooper in the past, you might have gotten off with a warning,” said ISP Sgt. Jerry Goodin. “Now, there is a very, very good possibility you’re going to get a ticket.”

Prompting the effort is an unexplained jump in fatalities on Indiana roads. State police track fatal accidents daily and compare them to the number of fatal crashes that occurred exactly a year ago. As of Wednesday, there were 24 more fatal crashes than a year ago on that date. So far, there have been 296 fatal crashes in 2012 — and 319 people who have died because of them.

Much of the increase is happening in rural areas, police said.

ISP Capt. Dave Bursten said state police started seeing what looked an upward trend in fatal crashes about six weeks ago. It alarmed them, especially since the historically deadliest months for traffic accidents are still to come, in July and August.

The crackdown June 13 with an announcement by state police Superintendent Paul Whitesell that his troopers were embarking an aggressive traffic violation enforcement program.

Whitesell gave troopers the green light to use both marked and unmarked vehicles while on patrol as well as what he called “non-traditional stealth patrol vehicles.” That includes Ford Mustangs, aircraft and state police vehicles that look like INDOT work trucks that will concentrate their enforcement efforts near construction zones.

Goodin said some motorists won’t be happy when they get stopped, especially if their driving didn’t lead to an accident. But state police have found in the past that when they crack down on traffic violators — especially drivers who are speeding, following too closely or driving erratically — the number of crashes goes way down.

Last week, state police released a month-by-month chart covering the past four years that showed a strong correlation between the number of police stops and number of crashes: As the police stops went up, the number of crashes dropped.

Goodin said troopers aren’t in the mindset to give dangerous drivers a break. “The superintendent told our troopers that we’re on a mission,” he said. “And that mission is to save lives.”

In 2006, Indiana had a peak year for fatal crashes, at 899. After a series of aggressive enforcement efforts, the number of fatal crashes dropped to 692 in 2009. The number of deaths caused by traffic accidents in 2009 was the lowest since 1925; meanwhile the number of traffic tickets and warnings issued by state police in 2009 was at a record high.

But the numbers have taken an alarming turn: There were 754 fatal crashes on Indiana roads in 2010; in 2011 there were 748.

Speeding is one of the top three causes of crashes in Indiana, which is why state police are targeting lead-footed drivers. But they’re also concerned by what they fear is a rise in “distracted drivers” — people behind the wheel who are also doing something else, like texting or talking on their cellphones.

“Distracted drivers are just as dangerous as impaired drivers,” Goodin said. “There are a lot of drivers just not paying attention to the road.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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