Riding the Interstate with Virginia's Safety Service Patrol

May 21, 2015

You may be planning to hit the highway for this Memorial Day weekend.

But you may not know that help is available on Virginia's Interstates if you break down or run out of gas.  And that's not all that Virginia's Safety Service Patrol does, as WMRA's Scott Lowe found out when he rode along the Harrisonburg route on I-81 recently.

This Memorial Day Weekend AAA expects the highest volume of travelers in 10 years, 33 million on the roads.  Most will get where they are going without trouble...but for some...

MOTORIST: I don’t understand, it just lost power completely.
WEBSTER: And it won’t turn over now...
MOTORIST No, it won’t even turn over, and my battery is dead 

That’s when the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Safety Service Patrol steps in. Managed by Serco as part of a 6-year $355 million contract the SSP helps with the most common problems motorists on Virginia's Interstate highways face.

DEAN WEBSTER: We can give you up to two gallons of gas or diesel fuel for free...all of our services are for free.  We can change your tire provided you have the spare tire and we can put air in that tire, and give you water and do minor maintenance enough to get you off the interstate and get you back to safety.

It's 6:30am as I join Dean Webster, a two-year veteran of the job to see what a typical 12-hour shift is like. First order of business at The Staunton VDOT Operations Center is a thorough safety check of the big Chevy truck loaded with equipment, safety gear and retractable electronic sign. Then we hit the Interstate at exactly 7:00am looking for stranded motorists, road hazards, and fresh overnight roadkill, which perhaps fortunately is scooped up by another VDOT contractor. Dean’s designated patrol on 81 today is between the Weyers Cave and New Market exits, and a driver can rack up between 400 and 700 miles a day depending upon how many and how long service stops are. Just after 9:00, the first dispatch of the day is typical ….

DRIVER: I just ran out of gas on 81 south.

Two free gallons glug in and he's on his way, and later that morning just south of New Market:

WEBSTER: Are you from Alabama ?  (DRIVER: yes) and any service we give you is for free ...this is a free service Virginia offers. (DRIVER: ohhh nice!).  So I can help you with a wrecker. So I’ll take a look at it but let me set up some cones and tell her where I’m at so it’s a little bit safer for us and I’ll be right up and take a look at it. (DRIVER: ok thank you so much)

Webster goes the extra mile to help, even Googling their warning light indicator, but it can't be fixed roadside.  He stays with the travelers, who are grateful for all the help, for about an hour until they are towed away.  I learn that Dean was a State Trooper for 20 years, and he says in this job that experience gives him a good situational awareness.  And you never know what you might find on the side of the Interstate...even evidence in a murder case.

WEBSTER: A few months ago there was a woman that was found dead and they had been looking for her for a while, and one of the SSP drivers was working the Harrisonburg route and saw a purse underneath a guardrail. And stopped and it just happened to be her purse, and he immediately called the State Police. They knew that she had been there or whoever had done her harm was there.

As the day progresses there are other motorists to assist but we fortunately are never called to the scene of any accidents.  But that's a big part of the job, too, as VDOT spokesperson Sandy Myers explains.

SANDY MYERS:  Safety Service Patrol is of huge help to many citizens whether they know it or not.  They help with incident clearance and that’s a major factor on Interstates particularly roads like Interstate 81. The sooner we can get an incident cleared, the less backup we’re going to have.

Near the end of his shift Webster cuts his hand retrieving a mangled aluminum ladder off the road.  He says there is always danger.

DEAN: People are so distracted nowadays with cell phones, and intoxicated drivers and what have you and it only takes a second to drift over that fogline on the right side and that’s usually where we're sittin’.

So if you travel this weekend, watch out for the VDOT safety service patrol, and if you break down dial #77 and they’ll be right there to assist you. And travel safely this holiday weekend.