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Resources Affect Strategies; Police Say They Do Their Best to Warn Motorists on Interstates

Lebanon Patrol Officer places new flares along north bound lane of Interstate 89, warning drivers of a fallen tree blocking more than half the road in Lebanon, N.H., on July 9, 2014. 
(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Lebanon Patrol Officer places new flares along north bound lane of Interstate 89, warning drivers of a fallen tree blocking more than half the road in Lebanon, N.H., on July 9, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

Lebanon — A fatal crash that killed a Vermont woman last week on Interstate 89 raised questions about how authorities notify motorists of upcoming traffic hazards, especially when police forces are strapped for resources.

New Hampshire State Police and the Lebanon Police Department said the manpower available didn’t allow for a police cruiser with flashing lights to be stationed on the roadway ahead of the slowdown to notify motorists of the need to use caution.

But State Police were able to update remotely operated electronic message boards to alert motorists of the traffic jam.

“You have to realize the limited amount of resources for the State Police,” State Police Sgt. Ron Taylor said. “The State Police is just spread thin, very thin.”

On any given shift, Troop D, which covers all of I-89, a portion of I-93 and all of Merrimack County, has one sergeant and five troopers on duty, Taylor said.

On July 2, Taylor and one other trooper responded to Exit 19, where wires had fallen over the interstate at the Route 4 underpass after they were snagged by a tractor trailer, causing the interstate to be shut down. Vehicles backed up for about a mile in each direction as vehicles were diverted onto city streets.

Later that morning, 24-year-old Heidi Rabidoux, of Colchester, Vt., lost control of her car near Exit 18 as she came upon the standstill traffic in the northbound lanes. She swerved her car to the right, hit the guard rail and the car flipped numerous times before coming to rest on an embankment.

After the wires fell down across the interstate, Taylor said, he and one other trooper were at Exit 19, dealing with the situation. Once the traffic started backing up, Taylor said, he called a third trooper to the scene.

As for Lebanon Police, Deputy Chief Phil Roberts said that at the time of the fatal crash, all four patrol officers on duty were working to direct cars in both directions off Exit 19 and helping to alleviate the backup on Route 4.

Roberts said there was nothing his department could have done differently.

“Our resources were being exhausted 100 percent at that time,” Roberts said. “When you have an incident that size with that amount of traffic, it’s all very fluid for the first little bit.”

State Police relied on message boards to notify drivers of the standstill traffic. A message board on the shoulder of the northbound lanes just south of Exit 18 began flashing at 10:19 a.m. with the message “I-89 NB CLOSED DETOUR NB X 18.”

In addition, a message board near Exit 9 in Warner was also updated with the words “I-89 NB AT X 19 CLOSED DETOUR X 17,” according to the state Department of Transportation’s transportation management center.

That was about 30 minutes before the crash that killed Rabidoux.

After the accident, Taylor called additional troopers from Troop G and administrative staff to the scene, and an officer who was directing traffic for Lebanon police at Exit 19 also left the scene to respond to the crash.

Even after the accident, police continued to rely on the message boards to update drivers of traffic conditions, and an accident timeline provided by the DOT included the following updates:

∎ The accident occurred about 10:45 a.m., and at 10:59 a.m., city police contacted the state’s transportation management center and asked that the message boards be used to alert motorists. DOT responded by saying that the boards were already set and that the Vermont DOT and Federal Highway Administration had been notified.

∎ At 11:17 a.m., the message board ahead of exit 18 was adjusted to read “I-89 NB AT X 18 CLOSED KEEP RT DETOUR NB X 18.”

∎ At the same time, the transportation management center contacted the DOT District 5 in Bedford, N.H., to ask if it had any available portable message boards that could be set up at the scene, but the district reported it did not.

∎ At 11:23 a.m., the transportation management center contacted the Vermont DOT to ask if it could set up message boards for southbound motorists, but it’s unclear whether signs were actually set up.

∎ By 12:18 p.m., the message board ahead of Exit 18 read, “I-89 NB AT X 19 NOW OPEN EXPECT DELAYS.”

Taylor, the State Police sergeant, said he felt the officers reacted as best they could.

“We do what we can with the manpower we have,” Taylor said. “We do the best job we can.”

Taylor would not comment about contributing factors of the crash, because it’s still under investigation, but said, “based on witnesses’ statements, she was traveling at a significant rate of speed and it appeared she didn’t see the traffic and slammed on her brakes and swerved.”

In Vermont, it is also common for the State Police resources to be stretched thin, especially when responding to a crash on the interstate, said Vermont State Police Capt. Ray Keefe, who is the Troop D commander.

On Wednesday, there were only three troopers working the Royalton barracks, three troopers and one sergeant working the Rockingham barracks and two troopers covering the Brattleboro barracks. Collectively, those troops covered 116 miles of interstate. A “good-size” shift is when there is one sergeant and four troopers covering a single barracks, Keefe said.

Additionally, the troopers are responsible for providing police coverage to a number of small Vermont towns that do not have police departments of their own.

“I deal with my counterparts in New Hampshire, and we seem to have the same situation, not enough people to cover the distance,” Keefe said. “We’ll get it done, but do I wish we had more? Absolutely.”

Keefe said it’s possible for a single trooper to shut down an interstate, but it’s not ideal.

There are certain sections of I-89, such as the curves in Royalton, where Keefe has a policy that whenever there is an accident in those areas, there needs to be a minimum of two officers — one who can deal with the accident and another who can stay in front of the traffic and warn drivers of the upcoming conditions with flashing lights.

But if there aren’t enough people working a shift, it doesn’t always happen, Keefe said.

Vermont doesn’t utilize many message boards, and Keefe said he thinks being able to utilize a cruiser is more effective, when possible, because he said he doesn’t know if people always pay attention to message boards.

But ultimately, he said, drivers have to pay attention to their surroundings, adding that there are more distractions in vehicles and “some people just don’t pay as much attention to driving as they should.”

“The minute that people see blue lights, they should be looking and slowing down and figuring out what is happening,” Keefe said.

Taylor, the New Hampshire sergeant, echoed that sentiment.

“I would just ask that the public pay attention,” Taylor said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.