Trooper sees why 'zero tolerance' is necessary


Over his 18 years as a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper, Loy Hixson has seen his share of traffic fatalities.

Words such as "gory" and "horrific" and "tragic" have long since been replaced in his initial reaction to rolling up on a deadly accident scene by the unanswerable "why."

Why wasn't she wearing her seat belt? Why was he traveling so fast? Why couldn't she wait to use her cellphone? Why was he drinking and driving?"

Why?

"It always comes back to that word," Hixson says in explaining the emotional impact a traffic fatality has on a law enforcement officer.

"You ask 'why' because in almost every case the accident was preventable."

Now the "why" falls upon motorists, specifically those breaking the law while traveling the 26-mile stretch of Interstate 15, southbound and northbound, between St. Rose Parkway in the southern valley and Primm.

A new, yearlong Highway Patrol safety initiative for that span of interstate, titled "Zero Tolerance Zone," will have troopers pulling over drivers who commit the slightest infraction and, in essence, asking them, "Why?"

"While that area has been labeled as one of the worst stretches (in the country) for accidents, what we found when we went back and did our research was that the road wasn't dangerous. It was the actions of a lot of drivers out there that were," says Hixson, now a Highway Patrol spokesman.

Among the numbers collected over the past five years: 877 crashes resulting in 23 fatalities.

As a result, four troopers on any given weekday, and as many as 10 on weekends - specifically, holiday weekends - will patrol the polished stretch of road that has a posted speed limit of 70 mph but frequently has seen motorists traveling 100-plus mph.

But those troopers won't be stopping only speeders. Drivers who tailgate or make illegal lane changes or drive erratically or use cellphones or appear otherwise distracted will see whirling patrol lights in their rearview mirrors.

When the Highway Patrol says "zero tolerance," it means it. The fact the initiative is in the agency's cross hairs for a full year puts an exclamation point to the seriousness.

"With an average of 45,000 drivers traveling that area every day, we asked, 'What can we do to reduce the accidents and save lives?' " Hixson says.

"The answer was to aggressively enforce those 26 miles, to have zero tolerance of every violation, no matter how minor."

Troopers will have at their discretion the right to ticket violators or simply issue warnings - "remind and/or re-educate," as Hixson terms it.

The initiative began New Year's Day with the bumper-to-bumper parade of Southern California residents returning home from a four-day weekend of holiday partying. There were no major incidents.

The Highway Patrol hopes it stays that way now that the "zero tolerance" advisory has been issued. But with so many roadway safety warnings being issued by various agencies almost every week, does there come a point when the words come across sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher: "Wah waaah waah wah waaaah ...?"

Hixson doesn't care whether this safety advisory, or others for that matter, come across as a muffled trombone, or are perceived to fall on the proverbial deaf ears of motorists.

Rather, he contends, drivers can't be reminded enough about safety, including the penalties for those who exhibit reckless and dangerous behavior.

"For some, driving becomes so matter-of-fact that their minds wander on the road. Those people just need a reminder to be more attentive," Hixson says. "And there are the ones who are easily distracted, whether it be by a cellphone call or their passengers, and they need to be told more forcefully.

"But then you have those drivers who literally throw caution aside and take unbelievable risks, like blowing past the speed limit or making extreme lane changes. Those are the ones who most certainly will be ticketed.

"But we want everyone to pay heed. Our troopers will make contact with every driver we see commit an infraction."

To help in its safety mission, the Highway Patrol now has some cruisers that have their patrol lights inside the front windshield, rather than on the roof.

Hixson says the agency isn't intentionally playing "Gotcha!" with the element of surprise; all vehicles still feature the agency's official markings. But errant motorists seem to straighten up when they first recognize a patrol car, only to resume their illegal ways once they've traveled past, so the hidden lights give troopers an even playing field when it comes to catching those breaking the law.

And for those who believe this ongoing emphasis on traffic safety is turning the valley into - no pun intended - a police state, Hixson points to the painful things he has seen on the road. And those were strangers. He says he can only imagine what family members are feeling when a relative dies in a crash.

"It's so simple to put on your seat belt, or to drive the speed limit, or to limit your distractions while driving. And then you come up on an accident and see the real result when drivers don't," Hixson says with a slight shake of his head.

"It doesn't make sense. You walk away every time asking, 'Why?' "

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