The Providence Journal
PAWTUCKET –– State Trooper William Reilly Jr. hears the next 18-wheeler approaching before he ever sees it.
Big rigs throw out a distinct sound ahead of them. Reilly turns in time to watch a red tanker truck shoot past his perch and rumble onto the Route 95 bridge.
“Here we go.” The cruiser's tires spit gravel, then propel Reilly into northbound traffic and across the Seekonk River below.
The third chase of the morning is on.
Almost 21,000 trucks have been stopped for crossing this bridge since November 2007, when the state imposed weight and, later, axle restrictions on the deteriorating span. Reilly and his fellow troopers have issued $6.9 million in violations, most coming in the form of $3,000 penalties to the trucking companies and $85 tickets to the drivers for defying detour signs set up miles away.
Still the trucks cross the bridge. Still the troopers pull them over. Day and night. Work days and weekends.
It's enough to make any commuter witnessing the perpetual roadside scene wonder: don't these truckers use CB radios anymore?
Smokey's on the bridge. Follow the detour signs and get off before you get pinched.
Reilly has wondered the same thing many times. Turns out most of the truckers he's stopped use cell phones and navigational devices that don't show the detours. Other truckers know better but shoot the bridge anyway, perhaps hoping the troopers are busy with other truckers.
How many trucks has Reilly stopped since he began working this post in November 2007?
“The calculator doesn't go up that high,” he joked minutes before taking up the latest chase. “When we first started, you couldn't keep up with them all. You would be pulling out to get one and another would go by. They didn't know what was going on at first.”
Now, after almost three years, Reilly can't believe any trucker working New England roads doesn't know about the Route 95 bridge detour in Pawtucket.
Yet the troopers remain busy, constantly replenishing their well of stories.
Reilly stopped a truck once with a driver and co-driver inside. He handed the $85 ticket to the driver for disobeying the detour signs. The unhappy driver wouldn't accept it.
“It's his fault,” he shouted, pointing to his copilot. “He's supposed to be watching the signs, not me.”
Many truckers apparently have a preconceived image of the bridge having a metal arch and report never knowing they had crossed it.
On another day, a trooper stopped a truck crossing the bridge on the northbound side and gave him the regular two tickets: one $85 ticket for disobeying the detour signs and the $3,000 fine for the trucking company for an overweight or axle violation (any truck with more than two axles).
The following day Reilly was watching the bridge from the southbound side when the same truck and driver came back across.
“Buddy, what were you thinking?” asked Reilly. “Didn't you learn your lesson yesterday?”
The trucker replied: “Yeah, I know you stopped me yesterday. That's why I thought I could come back this way today, 'cause I got the ticket already.”
Reilly wrote him out another $85 ticket.
Trooper Ken Jones, a former Marine who stands about 6-foot-5, once stopped an equally large man from the South who carried on and on about how unfair it was that he had received an $85 ticket. Then Jones handed him a $3,000 ticket to present to his boss.
The big trucker appeared to implode right there by the side of the road like some eye-bulging cartoon character. Trooper Jones reported watching the truck cab swaying back and forth after the driver climbed back inside. Apparently he was tearing the interior apart.
Truckers often tell troopers they never saw the multiple signs for the detours or that they were confused by their message: 2 axle limit/18 ton max. Drivers with empty trucks know they are under the 18-ton maximum weight limit and sometimes think they can legally cross. Not so. The two-axle limit has been in play since 2008.
Reilly says he's had some truckers say they thought the signs meant 18 tons per axle, which if they did the math would mean their five-axle vehicles would weigh at least 180,000 pounds, a weight illegal on any road.
State transportation officials concede the signs can be misconstrued but say it's difficult to convey a clear message in a short space and which drivers have only a few seconds to comprehend.
And so red lights keep flashing in truckers' rear-view mirrors.
With fast acceleration, Trooper Reilly catches up to the red truck in seconds. The truck pulls into the breakdown lane near Exit 29. Reilly approaches from the passenger side, hand resting on his pistol holster. He climbs onto the truck and asks the driver to step out.
“What'd I do?” asks Daniel Smithers, 59, of Pennsylvania
“Didn't you see the detour signs?” Reilly replies, and calmly recites what he has said hundreds of times before: the signs began back in East Greenwich. You were supposed to take Exit 27 before the bridge. …”
“This is brand new to me,” says Smithers. “I haven't been driving that long.”
Smithers eventually says he did see the signs; something about an 18-ton limit. But he's riding empty, heading up to Mansfield, Mass., to pick up a load of liquid chocolate to bring back down to Pennsylvania. He's under the weight restriction.
Reilly reminds him of the axle restriction, too. Smithers looks away and nods.
Back in the cruiser, Reilly is writing out an $85 ticket to Smithers for disobeying the detour signs when another 18-wheeler whines past at full speed and in the middle lane. Had it taken the detour, it would not have had time yet to get going so fast. A lucky fish.
Does it bother Reilly that one got away?
“Yep,” is all he says.
Reilly hands Smithers the $85 ticket. The trooper has spared the truck company the $3,000 violation. He knows the truck is below the 18-ton limit, therefore it didn't violate that statute, nor technically hurt the bridge, which is scheduled to be replaced by a new $90-million span by June 2013. (Construction is expected to start by the end of this year.)
“I normally don't come up here at all,” says Smithers, who took up trucking after losing a factory job. “I got my pilot's license. I should have flown. Then the only thing you have to worry about is terrorists.”
Between January and June of 2008, troopers stopped on average 1,023 trucks a month on the bridge, according to state police statistics. Through the first six months of this year, troopers stopped on average 417 trucks a month.
Most trucks, said Reilly, are stopped heading south, where the detour route through Central Falls and Pawtucket is more confusing than the northbound detour, which is short and parallels the bridge.
Reilly ends his 12-hour shift with nine stopped trucks. His partner on the southbound side, Trooper Brendan Devine, stopped one or two more. Another typical day of putting smiles on people's faces.
A day earlier, Pierre LaCroix, 42, of Quebec, the owner of a small trucking company, drove his personal pickup, carrying nothing but his outrage, for almost nine hours and 400 miles south to the Traffic Tribunal court house in Cranston.
In a large yellow envelope, he had brought with him the ticket his company's driver had received one day in June and the $3,000 fine levied against his company. He also had a copy of the hand-written driving directions he had received from the Arnold Lumber Co., in South Kingstown, explaining the route LaCroix's trucker should follow to deliver the order of wood.
The directions clearly stated to take Route 95 south through Pawtucket, turning south onto Route 4 in Warwick. It said nothing about a bridge detour.
Speaking through a French interpreter, LaCroix negotiated with the state police prosecutor to have his fine cut in half to $1,500, a settlement most traffic court judges are willing to accept if the truck company pleads guilty and spares the state the time and cost of a trial.
Still LaCroix was not pleased.
“Three thousand dollars is exaggerated,” he said afterward. “It's not legal, and you can put that on the front page.”
Was there any lesson learned? “Yes. Not to come to Rhode Island.”
BY THE NUMBERSBreaking the law on the Pawtucket Bridge
In 2007, the state imposed weight limits. In 2008, trucks with more than two axles were also banned from crossing the Route 95 bridge. The state police provided the following numbers.
Trucks stopped from November 2007 through July 10, 2010
Trucks stopped on average per month from Jan. 1 through June 2008
Monthly average of trucks stopped first six months of this year
Total fines levied