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W.Va. patrol helps I-81 drivers in distress

November 28, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - There is very little Sheryll James and Bill Schoppert haven't seen as employees of the Courtesy Patrol on Interstate 81.

They are part of a four-person team in Berkeley County working for the statewide patrol program organized a year ago and operated by the state Department of Transportation.

From deer carcasses to irate motorists to airborne appliances, James and Schoppert never know what they will see next on the freeway.

It is their job to keep an eye out for trouble on the Berkeley County section of the interstate and assist motorists any way they can.

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"You name it, we've found it," said Schoppert, who with the other three team members provide 24-hour patrols on the interstate. Team members are paid minimum wage, he said.

James said she became alarmed one day on the interstate when she noticed a kitchen stove teetering on the back of a truck. The range fell off the truck and skidded down the freeway.

Although Courtesy Patrol workers often pick up debris from the road, James said she caught up to the driver and made him go back and get the stove.

Last Tuesday night, James was driving the team's distinctive white pick-up truck with orange emergency lights on top when she noticed a person sleeping inside a pick-up truck at the northbound rest area near Bunker Hill. She became suspicious after seeing some Neo-Nazi stickers on the truck and peered inside.

James said the man kicked his foot at her, which convinced her to call police.

"Oh, it was scary," James said.

State Police Sgt. George Bradshaw said the Courtesy Patrol performs an invaluable service, although he wants to make sure they are always careful on the interstate. If patrol workers ever encounter a dangerous situation such as a crime, they are instructed to call state police, said Bradshaw.

Schoppert said the advice is always followed.

"We just have to use common sense," he said.

For the most part, James and Schoppert said, the people they meet on the interstate are pleasant. Schoppert said he loves meeting people, and one of the reasons he decided to come out of retirement to take the job with the Courtesy Patrol is to work with motorists.

James and Schoppert laugh and kid each other about their stories and experiences on the interstate patrol, like the time a woman wrapped her arms around Schoppert after he helped her change a flat tire.

"She didn't know what to do," said Schoppert, remembering the day he pulled up to the frantic stranded motorist.

Schoppert changed the flat, and the woman wanted to repay him somehow.

"She offered me money and I said. 'I can't take that.' She said, 'How about a big hug?' and I said, 'I'll take that,' '' Schoppert said.

The Courtesy Patrol was set up statewide to provide assistance to stranded motorists and remove obstacles that create safety hazards to drivers. The patrol units have also helped police and emergency rescue officials at accident scenes, directing traffic and offering basic first-aid treatment to injured drivers until ambulance crews arrive.

Courtesy Patrol units are stationed on 10 other freeways in the state, including I-64, I-70, I-79 and I-77, according to the state Department of Transportation. James said West Virginia is the first state in the Tri-State area to offer a full-time courtesy patrol.

State Department of Transportation Secretary Sam Bonasso said the Courtesy Patrol has been a tremendous success since it started. Motorists feel as if they have a "security blanket" when the Courtesy Patrol is out.

James said most of her time is spent driving the 26-mile section of interstate looking for problems. The Courtesy Patrol's truck, equipped with flares, tire jacks, jumper cables and medical equipment, is driven up to 330 miles each eight-hour shift, she said.

Each Courtesy Patrol car is equipped with a cell phone and a state Department of Highways radio.

James said another common problem she sees on the interstate is drunk driving. When she notices any driver weaving in traffic, she calls state police on the cell phone and reports the driver.

Many times, James said, she continues to follow until state police spot the motorist.

The holidays are the busiest time for the patrol. Traffic on I-81 was manageable on Thanksgiving Day, but it was "wall-to-wall" the day before, said Schoppert.

"It's going to be that way Sunday," Schoppert predicted.

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