License and registration, please: A night at a safety check
The flashing lights from a handful of squad cars during a recent state police roadside safety check would make any unsuspecting driver nervous.
'Most people this day and age don't come in contact with police before this,' said Trooper Tony Halsey at the large roadblock Friday night in Bartonville. 'But they have to realize it's designed to protect others who travel on the roadway.'
The checkpoint, funneling vehicles into the hands of waiting troopers, is part of a federal initiative to make sure drivers on the road are legal. During a given night, hundreds of cars will be checked for violations. For most drivers, the stop will be brief and uneventful.
For others, it will give troopers what they are looking for - drunken drivers.
The Illinois State Police Department District 8 conducts 20 to 25 roadside safety checks a year, said Halsey, a safety and education officer. The checks are part of the 'You Drink and Drive, You Lose' campaign, and funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
'We are out here to get impaired motorists off the roadway,' Halsey said.
Alcohol and drug impairment is a factor in more than 40 percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes in the state, he said.
On a wet Friday night, the troopers unpacked their rain gear and set up a checkpoint at Pfeiffer Road and U.S. Route 24. About six officers manned the area, looking for anything from vehicle violations - cracked windshields, burned out lights - to driver's violations, such as no insurance or valid driver's license.
The sites and dates are chosen at the Illinois State Police headquarters in Springfield. On busier weekends near holidays, as many as 20 officers take part.
Officers clearly mark the checkpoints with signs, traffic cones and the troopers' flashing squad cars. They don't discriminate on which cars they stop, trying to check every vehicle that passes by.
The troopers ask each driver for his or her driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. If all of these are provided and valid, the trooper takes a quick look at the car for any visible problems and sends the vehicle on its way.
If a driver doesn't have one of those three items, they must pull to the side and get a more thorough inspection. Some of the drivers end up with tickets, some move off with just a warning. Halsey said it's best if drivers have their information in their hand as they roll up to an officer.
"We try to keep traffic flowing pretty quickly," he said.
Jim Marrs, who drove through the checkpoint Friday on his way home from work, said the stops are routine.
"I think it's a good thing," Marrs said. "It keeps people safe."
Others come up to the stop a little more flustered.
"I was a little surprised," said Traci Worstell, who was also on her way home to Table Grove. "But I think it's worth it."
A steady stream of vehicles kept officers busy for nearly five hours Friday night and into Saturday morning. The job can get arduous, but troopers keep it light, joking with drivers and with each other. Still, they stay on guard, knowing anything can happen on the road.
"You don't know who you're approaching," said Master Sgt. Mike Welsh.
Welsh recalled a state police trooper from another district who lost his life several years ago when a drunken driver tried to flee the stop. The trooper had his hand through the window and was dragged and killed.
"Those kind of things happen," Welsh said. "You try to pick regions that are fairly well lit and keep safe."
Friday ended with only three arrests for suspended driver's licenses. Saturday the troopers moved to East Peoria, where the checks yielded seven arrests, including two DUIs.
The busier nights are not always the best, though.
"We take it as we're being proactive," Halsey said after Friday's check. "We're trying to be one step ahead of them."
Erinn Deshinsky can be reached at (309) 686-3112 or email@example.com.