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The State

CHP Is Keeping a Low Profile on Highways

Safety: Sporty pursuit vehicles, with none of the standard identifying marks, are intended to stem the tide of crashes involving trucks.

July 01, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A stealthy surprise is in store for scofflaw truck drivers and others who think they can avoid a ticket by spotting the distinctive silhouette of a California Highway Patrol cruiser in the rearview mirror and adjusting their driving accordingly.

A fleet of sleek, low-slung and very fast white Chevrolet Camaros is being put into traffic duty throughout the state as the CHP steps up its fight against truck-involved collisions.

In a shift from the familiar full-size black-and-white Ford sedans with their conspicuous roof-mounted red-and-blue light bars, the Camaros are intended to blend seamlessly into traffic and become virtually impossible to detect from the elevated cab of a big rig or in the rearview mirror of a passenger car.

About 60 Camaros are being assigned to traffic duty. They are unmarked, except for the CHP name and logo on the doors. No shotgun is visible. The standard police push-bar bumper is gone.

Gone, too, is the easily recognized light bar, which resembles a ski rack and advertises that a CHP vehicle is in the vicinity. Instead, the Camaros are fitted with extraordinarily low-profile light bars that are only 2 inches high and all but impossible to spot, even from a few feet way.

"We want to keep folks off-guard a little bit," said CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick. "We want them to think there may be an officer behind them and slow down."

The CHP said four of the new cars are planned for its Los Angeles area offices. Nine are scheduled for San Bernardino, five for San Diego and five for the Central Coast. The others are assigned to the San Joaquin Valley and Northern California.

The chief targets will be operators of 18-wheelers and other big trucks and passenger car motorists whose aggressive driving jeopardizes safety and threatens to cause truck crashes.

In spite of periodic crackdowns on truckers under Helmick, the CHP struggles to make a dramatic breakthrough in curbing such collisions. A frustrated Helmick is hoping the Camaros may be the answer.

"We've tried everything we know to get people to drive safer," he said. "Maybe this is a tool that will get some attention."

The California Trucking Assn., a trade organization of 2,500 member companies, is a strong supporter of the CHP's efforts to make California safe from errant truck drivers. It favors the patrol's new stealth campaign too.

"The highly visible marked car is a deterrent in some circumstances," said a spokesman, Warren Hayworth. But, he said, the new stealth cars are "appropriate to get those who are very wary but will misbehave when they think they're not being watched."

Along an especially deadly stretch of Interstate 5 between Stockton and Woodland, where truck crashes have become almost routine, CHP officers with four Camaros have been trying new enforcement tactics.

They coordinate their operations with CHP planes and helicopters overhead and with standard Ford police cars on the ground.

The team began its work in April and has not yet compiled enough results to draw firm conclusions. But CHP Capt. Doug Galbraith said, "This is the edge that we think will make the difference."

Since the late 1970s, the CHP has tried a variety of barely marked vehicles, including Camaros and Mustangs, for special enforcement assignments.

But the Ford Crown Victoria sedan, painted white and a variety of pastel colors, has been the car of choice.

Helmick, noting that other states have adopted the Camaro for patrol work, said the CHP wanted a car that was especially nimble, offered a relatively large driver compartment, and was very fast. Each car costs $25,479. This is the final year for production of this model.

Chevrolet reported the Camaro's top speed at 159 mph, but the CHP was more interested in its acceleration abilities. From a standing start, the Camaro can reach 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, the CHP said.

Helmick noted that some Camaros already are seeing duty and that the public's response has been favorable.

"They like the concept," he said. "Citizens have been complaining about trucks and [truck drivers] have been complaining about being cut off by cars."

Officer Kevin Pierce of Sacramento, one of the first officers to try out the new vehicles, said the motorists most surprised when he pulls them to the shoulder are those who didn't notice his white car and blew past him at a great rate of speed.

"At least once a day, I get somebody passing me at 85 to 90 mph," Pierce said. When those motorists are pulled over, he said, they invariably blurt out, "I wouldn't have passed you if I knew you were a police officer."

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