Troopers riding in big rigs

Some big rig drivers won't have any trouble spotting "smokies" on Las Vegas roadways over the next few months. The troopers will be sitting in their cabs.

Truck drivers have no need to worry, Nevada Highway Patrol officers are not targeting them. They're after you.

The Highway Patrol on Tuesday launched its new "Badges on Board" in an effort to educate motorists in smaller vehicles how to handle driving around tractor-trailers.

The troopers inside the rigs note license plates of drivers who trail them too closely or cut them off on the freeway. Fellow troopers in patrol cars in staging areas will then take off after the violators.

The Highway Patrol cited 64 motorists during a four-hour period while conducting a pilot program last year, according to Lt. Joseph Wingard. Those numbers were higher than most of the 20 cities nationwide that participated in the same operation, which is funded through federal grants.

"Drivers in Las Vegas are more aggressive than in other cities. In the long run, we hope we can change the behavior of the driver," Wingard said. "If they think a cop may be in the cab, maybe they'll be a little less likely to cut off that truck."

Motorists often swoop in front of tractor-trailers in attempts to exit the freeway or if they see warning signs that a lane is closing due to road work.

"How many cars try to pack in so they don't get stuck behind a tractor-trailer?" Wingard said.

In his 20 years as a patrolman, Wingard has seen his share of fatal accidents caused by small vehicles pulling in front of big rigs.

Most motorists don't realize that an 80,000-pound truck can't stop nearly as quickly as a 4,000-pound car. In fact, it takes a truck traveling at highway speed the length of a football field to come to a stop.

In 2006, the Highway Patrol reported 594 accidents involving big rigs; 43 of those wrecks were fatal. The Nevada Department of Public Safety officials hope programs such as Badges on Board will reduce that figure significantly by 2011.

Robert Barton, a truck driver for 30 years, can relate to motorists' mistakes around big rigs. He rear-ended a small vehicle driven by a motorist who cut in front of him and slammed on the brakes.

"Most motorists don't' have a clue how long it takes to stop a large truck," Barton said.

The program will run through February.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker or 702-387-2904.