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FHP targets debris from vehicles

By Kristen Bolt
Miami Herald

MIAMI – Ovidio Antonio Montoya's hands shook as he handed over his driver's license to Florida Highway Patrolman Lt. Pat Santangelo on Thursday.

Montoya had just been stopped for transporting loose dirt in his truck while the cover, meant to prevent the material from being blown onto the highway and the cars behind him, flapped uselessly.

The stop, on Interstate 95 near Sunrise Boulevard in Broward County, was part of Operation Safe Ride, a two-day statewide mission to reduce aggressive driving and crack down on improperly secured cargo.

The FHP deployed every trooper, even the desk workers -- Santangelo is a public information officer -- in response to what FHP Maj. Ernesto Duarte referred to as ``an inordinate amount of public complaints about truckers on the highways.''

Montoya is one of many truck drivers who transport loose materials, such as sand, earth and rock, on Florida's most heavily used roadways.

The problem, said Santangelo, who heard the ping of loose gravel hitting his windshield more than once on Thursday, is that the drivers are often not the owners of the trucks with faulty equipment. The owners who are responsible for the trucks' maintenance do not feel the sting of the $47 fine for unsecure cargo.

Some groups and legislators are lobbying to increase the fines and up the penalty for unsecured cargo from a nonmoving violation to a moving violation. Otherwise, they say, drivers can accrue multiple tickets with little fear of damaging their driving records.

Montoya explained that he had asked the truck's owner to fix the tarpaulin's clasp, to no avail.

Although the driver is responsible for the condition of the truck he's driving, Santangelo explained: ``Many of these drivers do not have other economic opportunities. Either they drive the trucks and make money or they stay home.''

Santangelo contacted the owner, threatened to prohibit the truck from being moved from the side of the road, and extracted a promise to correct the problem. He guaranteed a personal follow-up.

This action, Santangelo said, can be more effective than fining the driver.

Eugene Williams didn't get ticketed either. Santangelo pulled him over on Florida's Turnpike near Pompano Beach for having a cooler and some tools loose in the bed of his truck. The solution was simple: lock the items down and drive away safer.

Jesus Fernandez was not so lucky. Fernandez, unaware that the red car at his side on I-95 near Sunrise Boulevard was an unmarked highway patrol vehicle, made a break for the fast lane.

He made the move by hitting 90 mph, tailgating and making unsignaled lane changes and harrowing cut offs, Santangelo said.

Muttering ''This guy is crazy,'' Santangelo was on his tail with the sirens on in a startlingly short period of time.
Fernandez, a Miami resident who was transporting a rental car for his employer Alamo, was ticketed for speeding that constituted aggressive driving.

Aggressive highway driving, as defined by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, can include speeding, tailgating, passing on the right, careless driving, and quickly changing more than one lane without signaling (known as ''lane surfing'' to FHP troopers).

Fatalities and crashes associated with aggressive driving decreased from the late 1980s until 1997, according to the most recent study available from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

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