Highway Patrol squad enforces rules of the road
Posted on May 4
By BECKY SHAY of the Billings Gazette
The Montana Highway Patrol's new patrol squad is making its presence known.
''People talk about us everywhere we go,'' Trooper Dave Munson said while cruising Interstate 90 on Friday.
Munson is a member of the Strategic Traffic Enforcement Team, a group of troopers who travel the state and do just what their name suggests: strategically enforce traffic.
The squad, as members call the unit, is funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for two years. The goal is to reduce crashes by 2 percent each year, Munson said. On Friday, Munson gave out as many warning as tickets. The stern talking to and reminder of Montana traffic laws is effective, he said, and usually given based on the less egregious offenses.
He recalled stopping a young man who was caught on radar going 107 mph outside of Belgrade. At least 12 people honked as they passed Munson at the stopped car.
''They are excited,'' Munson said. ''He just blew their doors off Law abiding people enjoy seeing us out here,'' Munson said.
There are not enough law enforcement officers to catch every violator, Munson said.
''But when we're in town, it increases the odds that an aggressive driver is going to be caught.''
The STET is a twist on the patrol's ''goon squad'' of years ago. The major difference is that where STET works is highly focused, based on stacks of statistics the MHP has compiled. This squad also uses some of the top equipment available to troopers, including laser radar.
Billings MHP Capt. Keith Edgell was on the goon squad - a moniker used internally and by the public - when he joined the patrol 20 years ago. Like most of the other members back in the day, he was fresh out of the academy. Back then, the squad covered the whole state. Now, its coverage is on the most dangerous stretches of road, based on statistics and called ''high crash corridors.''
Those areas are mostly in the state's larger population areas of Billings, Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman-Belgrade, Edgell said. The squad provides ''an extra boost in the arm,'' for the MHP's day-to-day operations.
''We don't have the ability to be as proactive as we would like to be,'' he said.
In the Billings area, the corridor is Interstate 90, from the junction with Interstate 94 to Laurel; U.S. Highway 212 into Red Lodge and Route 78 between Columbus and Red Lodge. While the troopers can and will cite people for violations outside the specific areas, they concentrate on the corridors.
''Over the years, those have been our deadly highways in this district,'' Edgell said.
In two hours Friday morning, Munson drove about 60 miles making laps between the South 27th Street exit and the authorized vehicle turnaround east of the Interstate 90-94 junction. He stopped five drivers, writing five tickets - four for speeding and one for ot using a seatbelt - and gave those drivers a total of about eight warnings. Several hundred cars were not stopped, he said, because the drivers were voluntarily obeying the law - just as those who were stopped chose not to follow the law.
The squad works closely together, sometimes stacked up along the road. One benefit of that is to pull over drivers who are violating the law while driving past a trooper with a stopped car. For example, Montana law requires drivers to slow and pull to the left, when possible, while passing an emergency vehicle stopped with its emergency lights flashing.
''Not a lot of people seem to understand that,'' Munson said just after the force of a passing green pickup rocked his patrol car parked in the westbound shoulder.
Had a second member of the squad been directly ahead of Munson, the pickup driver would have been stopped and likely written a ticket.
On the next eastbound lap, Munson spotted a sport-utility vehicle coming down a hill - past a 65 mph sign. The radar unit on the dashboard just over Munson's car's odometer blinked a red ''84.''
''This one is smoking,'' he said, and slowed to change directions through a highway turnaround. With Munson in the inside lane behind him, the driver continued to speed. Munson was able to pace the driver at 90 mph, the speed for which he could write the ticket. Instead, Munson relied on the radar, which he called ''solid as a rock'' in court, and wrote up the man for driving 84 mph in a 65 zone.
The U-turn Munson completed to stop the driver would be impossible in commuter traffic, for example between Billings and Laurel. There is just no safe way a trooper shooting radar from the median or a driving lane could safely get into traffic and make a stop.
That's when the squad puts one trooper in the median to shoot radar. The others line up in the shoulder on one side of the road. As soon as that trooper has a speeder on radar, he or she radios the vehicle and driver description to the others. The first trooper in the line merges into traffic, usually just in time to stop the speeder.
''It's safer, cost effective and efficient,'' he said.
The strategy also works on aggressive drivers who are zig-zagging through traffic, Munson said.
Although the squad can't track it, Munson believes their presence provides a strong psychological impact. For fast or belligerent drivers, just seeing all the MHP cars is a good reminder to follow the law. Even more fulfilling for Munson, is the drivers who know they have obeyed the speed limit and followed other laws and are glad for it.
''The squad comes in and leaves a big effect on the public for awhile,'' he said.
About the time that wears off, the squad rotates back. They are scheduled to be in the Billings area about five times this year, Capt. Edgell said. The members work eight days on and six days off. This stint in Billings continues through Tuesday.