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W.Va. grant money to fund campaign against reckless driving on I-81

July 16, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- The Berkeley County Sheriff's Department is launching an "aggressive driver" campaign this month to help West Virginia State Police curb reckless driving and speeding on Interstate 81.

A $6,000 grant awarded by the West Virginia Governor's Highway Safety Program will give deputies the opportunity to earn overtime pay to patrol the state's 26-mile section of the highway.

While happy to receive help from the sheriff's department, State Police 1st Sgt. E.D. Burnett, the district commander for the Eastern Panhandle, said he also hoped to be able to reestablish the law enforcement agency's "interstate patrol team."

Exclusively assigned to handle calls on I-81, the three-trooper unit was disbanded when staffing levels were not maintained a number of years ago, Burnett said.

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"We are back up to an acceptable, (if not optimal) number of troopers at the barracks," Burnett said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, with the amount of calls for service each day we have not been able to go back to this interstate patrol."

Troopers are assigned to patrol I-81, but have to "break free" from there to respond to calls for service and other duties, Burnett said.

"Any additional manpower that we can get out there to control these aggressive drivers is needed," Burnett said.

Sgt. T.C. Kearns, commander of the Martinsburg detachment of the West Virginia State Police, said he contacted Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth M. Lemaster Jr. about four months ago and discussed the "rash" of fatal accidents and reckless driving complaints on I-81 with him.

Aggressive driving was attributed as the cause of an accident on I-81 last month involving a fuel tanker truck and a car that shut the highway down near Falling Waters, W.Va., for about 11 hours.

Kearns said he and Lemaster agreed to conduct more patrols and indicated the need for more troopers is being studied by the agency's executive staff.

With the grant money, deputies will be paid overtime for exclusively patrolling the interstate on a voluntary basis until there is no funding left, Lemaster said.

"The guys will snatch it up," Capt. Dennis Streets said of the overtime money available.

Robert "Bob" Kane, regional coordinator for the West Virginia Governor's Highway Safety Program, said Thursday he has requested more of the state-awarded federal funding for the sheriff's department's campaign for the next fiscal year.

Kearns said in an e-mail he would like to have seven additional troopers at the Martinsburg barracks, with three to four officers assigned full time to the interstate.

"Currently we have the amount of troopers ... in Berkeley County that we did in 1996, but the population has grown rapidly since then," Kearns said.

The county's population increased by more than 25,000 between April 2000 and July 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest estimate indicates the county's population last summer was 102,044, ranking second largest among West Virginia's 55 counties.

In 2007, the average daily number of vehicles that traveled the West Virginia portion of I-81 ranged from 47,500 vehicles on the interstate in the county's south end to 60,000 vehicles between Exit 14 (Dry Run Road) and Exit 16 (W.Va. 9/Edwin Miller Boulevard) north of Martinsburg, according to the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

Traffic count data for 1996 was not available from the agency Thursday afternoon.

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