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Police find roads ever more dangerous

Point to a culture of reckless driving

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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Some highway signs yesterday flashed information about the wake for Douglas Weddleton, a State Police sergeant killed last week when two allegedly drunk drivers caused a freak crash at the highway exit he was guarding. Across the state, other signs were programmed with a stern reminder to obey laws designed to prevent such casualties.

“It’s the law. Move over,’’ the billboards warned. “Slow down.’’

But such warnings are widely and flagrantly ignored, authorities say. In the aftermath of Weddleton’s death, law enforcement officials decried what they say is an increasingly reckless driving culture that has made routine traffic details and traffic stops more perilous and roadside fatalities grimly familiar.

“They are completely oblivious,’’ said Sergeant John Concannon of the Weymouth Police Department, which lost an officer in a traffic detail crash last year. “We can’t even get people to pull over for ambulances anymore. It’s just a sign of the times.’’

The Weymouth officer who was killed, Michael Davey, was struck in August when an elderly man drove his pickup truck through warning and stop signs and pinned the officer against a utility truck.

From 2000 to 2009, 154 US law enforcement officers were killed after being struck by vehicles, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In Massachusetts, 10 law enforcement officers were accidentally killed between 1999 and 2008.

The deadly crashes underscore the dangers of road details, particularly at night and along heavily traveled highways like Interstate 95, where Weddleton parked his cruiser to block a major exit ramp that was under construction, police say.

And the events that led to Weddleton’s death — the officer had waved over an allegedly drunk driver when a second allegedly drunk driver plowed into the car, dragging Weddleton across the highway — have crystallized what many law enforcement officers already believed, that the dangers are greater and more unpredictable than ever.

“It’s much worse now than when I started my career,’’ said Concannon, an officer for 27 years. “Everyone thinks the rules don’t apply to them.’’

Rick Brown, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, worked scores of overnight traffic details with Weddleton during construction of the Big Dig and said Weddleton was “as safe as they come.’’

Brown railed against impaired drivers who don’t respect police officers “any more than a traffic barrel.’’

“Give us some room so we can protect people,’’ he said. “That’s what Dougie was doing. He was making sure that ramp was safe. And it cost him his life.’’

Even beyond the fatalities, a number of officers have been seriously injured while working road details, often by drunk drivers.

Two years ago, a state trooper was struck as he responded to an accident in the breakdown lane on the Massachusetts Turnpike. In 2003, a state trooper sustained life-altering injuries when a drunk driver hit her cruiser in the breakdown lane at nearly 100 miles an hour.

The recurrence of such crashes spurred legislators last year to enact the “move over’’ law, which requires drivers to slow down when approaching stationary emergency response vehicles and, if possible, change lanes to give them more room.

Police across the state have since handed out nearly 4,000 citations, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Supporters said they are pleased to learn the law is being enforced so vigorously, but acknowledged that many erratic drivers seem undeterred.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with people,’’ said state Representative Christine E. Canavan, a sponsor of the legislation. “Police officers can only do so much. Maybe people will become more aware of this law, and that will be part of the legacy that Sergeant Weddleton leaves.’’

Some believe that “move over’’ laws, which have been enacted across the county in recent years, are making a difference. Nationally, traffic-related deaths have dropped 39 percent from their 2007 peak, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

But most officers are not counting on drivers suddenly becoming safer and are taking steps to protect themselves, law enforcement specialists say. When making traffic stops, more are pulling farther onto the shoulder and keeping a close watch on oncoming traffic.

“What we’re telling people is not to have their back to traffic,’’ said A. Wayne Sampson, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “It can be very dangerous out there, especially at night.’’

More officers are also approaching vehicles from the passenger side, authorities said.

“Troopers have to use their best judgment,’’ said Ken Howes, executive director of the American Association of State Troopers, which has lobbied for “move over’’ laws. “They have a high-risk job, and they know that. Still, that doesn’t prevent drunk drivers.’’

Richard Ashton, who has studied the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said stopping on the roadway is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of police work, and states have gone to great lengths to minimize risks. States such as Arizona and Florida have experimented with measures from reflective clothes for officers to brighter lights on warning signs, and New York now places large trucks at the front of construction zones to guard against crashes. “The cruiser is never the first vehicle in line,’’ he said.

Still, officers at details, particularly those guarding closed roads, are squarely in harm’s way.

“In these cases, the more you try to do your job, the more danger you put yourself in,’’ he said.

Luisa Paiewonsky, who heads the state’s Highway Division, said transportation officials will consult with State Police to determine if any lessons can be taken from the crash. She said the Transportation Department is exploring ways to increase public awareness of the “move over’’ law, in an effort to get at the root of the problem.

She, like most authorities, reserve blame for the drunk and distracted drivers.

“These are not accidents; these are crashes,’’ Sampson said. “They could have been avoided.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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