Rampant speedings bring police crackdown in construction zones

Interstate drivers navigate the construction around Exit 8 in Montpelier, where speed checks in the reduced-speed zone have netted thousands in fines.
Stefan Hard/Times Argus






By Email link Times Argus Staff - Published: August 5, 2009

MONTPELIER Despite flashing lights, multiple road signs, cones, bright orange barriers and in some cases astronomical fines, drivers statewide aren't getting the message to slow down in construction zones this summer, according to law enforcement.

The speeding has been especially bad near the bridge construction on Interstate 89 in Montpelier, said Chuck Satterfield, the sheriff's liaison at the Governor's Highway Safety Program.

"I can tell you that bridge construction at Exit 8 has been ridiculous," said Satterfield, who is leading the traffic enforcement in construction zones statewide. "It's been non-stop."

The fastest recorded speed in that one-lane 50 mph construction zone this summer is 94 mph, said Satterfield. The driver in that case was given more than a ticket: he was arrested and given a court date to face a misdemeanor charge of careless and negligent operation of a motor vehicle, Satterfield said.

Satterfield has been leading a traffic enforcement effort this summer that's part of the Vermont Agency of Transportation's work zone safety program, a federally funded project that includes an advertising campaign in addition to speed enforcement.

Careful not to tip his hand, an agency spokesman would only say the speed enforcement runs through the "construction season."

Satterfield does not yet have the total dollar amount in fines or the number of tickets issued this year during the sheriffs' patrols. Those statistics won't be available until this fall after all the information has been entered into a database, he said.

But on Monday, a deputy working in the Montpelier zone issued 23 tickets worth $8,300 in fines in seven hours, said Satterfield. And he was just one of four officers working in that construction zone. The largest fine the deputy issued was a $649 ticket for going 83 mph in the 50 mph zone, said Satterfield, noting that as the road signs clearly state "speeding fines are doubled in a construction zone."

Satterfield acknowledged that's a sizable fine, but said it's warranted.

"This is putting people's lives at risk, going 83 in a one-lane work zone," he said.

The work zone safety program is in its seventh year, and is all about keeping drivers, passengers and road workers safe, said VTrans spokesman John Zicconi.

"Many of our employees who work out on the highway have stories about having to vault over guardrails to avoid getting hit by cars," said Zicconi.

"Work zones are confusing places because the rules of the road change," he added.

Despite all the tickets issued this year, there haven't been a high number of accidents, said Satterfield. There was one bad crash on Route 4 in Rutland the first day of the work zone patrols, in which an eastbound driver hit an "arrow board," crossed the median and the two westbound lanes before hitting the guardrail. But that was the only significant accident he could recall.

It's something of a mystery why drivers aren't getting the message to slow down this year, authorities said.

Twice as much money is being spent on roadwork in Vermont this summer thanks to federal stimulus money, said Zicconi, which translates into more construction zones.

But Satterfield doesn't believe that is the reason police are catching more speeders. Many of the construction zones around the state are too small to patrol, he said.

The patrols are typically set up in construction zones that don't have flaggers, Satterfield said, which usually means larger highways that have at least two lanes going in one direction.

Route 4 in Rutland, Interstate 89 in Royalton, and Interstate 91 in both Brattleboro and the Wells River area are places with construction zones the sheriffs' patrols have worked.

"If you have a flagger, you generally don't have speeding problems, and it's the speeding problems that generally cause crashes in work zones," said Satterfield.

Satterfield said it's mystifying why they are still finding so many speeders this time of the year.

"What typically happens, the Vermont people, the locals driving through zones all time, start slowing down and we start getting people from out of the region, out of state, but that has not proven to be the case this year, which is discouraging, because this is the fourth year we've done this," said Satterfield.

At the Exit 8 construction zone on Monday, two-thirds of the people ticketed had Vermont plates, said Satterfield.

Though the Exit 8 area in Montpelier has been "by far the worst" in the state, said Satterfield, it's not clear why. The area is on a big hill, but Satterfield said the fastest drivers seem to be coming up the hill.

Another surprise has been the age of speeders, said Jim Wells, a Washington County deputy sheriff.

Wells thought he would catch a lot of drivers between the ages of 18 and 30 years old, but that hasn't been the case.

'The youngest person I had was 41," Wells said. "The younger people were actually going slower the way they should have been."