Commissioner seeks more patrol of The Dragon Knoxville News Sentinel

MARYVILLE - Recent traffic enforcement on Blount County's most notable stretch of highway is paying off, officials say, but one county commissioner would like to see that effort intensified.

Dr. Bob Proffitt, who represents Blount County's District 5, has written a letter to Mayor Jerry Cunningham decrying the "flagrant disregard of speed limits and highway safety for motorcyclists and automobiles" on a stretch of U.S. Highway 129 known as The Dragon.

Motorcycle riders and some sports car enthusiasts come from near and far to drive the road, which has 318 curves in 11 miles as it winds to the mountaintop gathering place known as Deal's Gap.

Proffitt also has contacted officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, according to the letter.

Travis Brickey, TDOT community relations officer, said new signage has been installed on The Dragon, along with raised reflectors in the roadway center line. In addition, roadside embankments and berms have been constructed to prevent motorists from running off the side of the mountain in the event they leave the pavement.

Proffitt said in an interview, he has seen motorcycles doing "wheelies" and going at "tremendous speeds."

He said there are some who "will not drive that highway" for fear of other reckless motorists and riders.

Proffitt said he intends to bring the issue up at tonight's commission Agenda Committee meeting to see what county government can do to help enforce traffic laws on the scenic road.

Lt. Col Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol said the Governor's Highway Safety Office is funding a successful effort by his agency and the Blount County Sheriff's Office to provide overtime pay for officers who will patrol The Dragon on their off days or after their regular shifts.

The plan was funded for the summer of 2007, and the reduction in crashes was so dramatic that the plan has been funded for full years ever since. THP, he said, gets $75,000 to pay the overtime, and BCSO gets a grant.

Both agencies place extra cruisers on the road on weekends in the prime months for motorcycling, and Trott said THP is assessing possibly doing the same thing on some week days.

While they've seen four fatalities this year on the roadway, authorities say two of those occurred on weekdays when they didn't have stepped up patrols.

"We try to keep up with their calendar," he said, and motorcycling Web sites are monitored so that THP knows when special events are planned and extra cruisers may be needed.

"We are not trying to hurt their fun," Trott said, "but if we see extra traffic will be coming, we want to be prepared. I am not saying we've got the problem solved. We don't."

THP's Lt. Don Baird said recent reductions in crashes are a "direct result" of stepped-up enforcement and added that many of the officers who patrol The Dragon are motorcycle riders also.

Robert L. Wilson is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.