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State Police: Increased patrols curbed fatalities

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sgt. Chris Zerkle says traffic deaths have dropped since the West Virginia State Police bumped up patrols on the state's roads and highways.

Zerkle, director of traffic records for the State Police, said deaths on West Virginia highways in 2013 are set to be the fewest since 2010.

"Our fatalities have gone down over the past few years," Zerkle said. He attributes the drop to increased patrols paid for with state and federal grant money.

Every year, the State Police gets grant money to pay for overtime to put more troopers on the roads. Zerkle passes the money out to local State Police detachments for different highway safety blitzes.

Zerkle likes to time the blitzes to coincide with holidays or other high-traffic times, when there are more people on the roads and more chances for accidents. During the last blitz, which Zerkle dubbed "Operation Turkey Bake," troopers wrote nearly 1,200 speeding tickets, issued 470 warnings and made 44 arrests for driving under the influence.

During the blitz, which ran from Nov. 27 through Dec. 1, there were 93 collisions on West Virginia's highways and two people were killed.

Zerkle thinks the extra road patrols are helping reduce the accident and death rates.

"People who are driving 75 mph, if they see a trooper, they're going to slow down a little bit," he said. "The focus is on traffic safety."

Zerkle said 345 people died in traffic accidents in West Virginia in 2008. That number was 336 in 2009, 294 in 2010, 315 in 2011 and 324 in 2012.

So far, 292 people have died on the state's highways this year. Zerkle hopes there aren't more.

"We're not here to write tickets to get more money," he said. "We're here for safety."

Zerkle said the State Police got $700,000 in grant money this year for extra patrols. The figure includes about $115,000 in extra funding Zerkle asked for to combat texting while driving and drivers not wearing seat belts, both of which are now primary offenses in West Virginia.

He said it might sound like a lot of money, but the funds are split among eight different troops around the state, each of which might be responsible for half a dozen counties. He said the State Police have about 400 road troopers responsible for the entire state.

Zerkle said it can sometimes be difficult to find enough troopers to make up the extra road patrols, particularly in smaller counties where only two or three troopers may be working.

"This is overtime money," he said. "The troopers are working on their day off or after they've completed their shift.

"If I had the manpower, it's hard to tell what I could do," Zerkle said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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