Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Highway Rescuers Do Put Safety First

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Highway Rescuers Do Put Safety First

Article excerpt

People who should know better keep making this tired, old claim: "Our first priority is safety."

It's rarely true.

Those who say it is are usually justifying the demise of a safety practice to save money or add convenience. Remember how SUVs were classified as light trucks to avoid tough safety standards? Remember how New Jersey axed car safety inspections? Or how the state's safety patrol service program for rescuing stranded motorists was trimmed?

If safety were really first, fewer SUVs would roll over, fewer cars would break down and more of the stranded would be rescued.

"Safety first" came up last week at an abandoned highway rest stop near Trenton where the safety patrol program, which operates on interstates, won state Department of Transportation praise for rescuing 70,000 stranded motorists last year.

"They're our unsung heroes," said Dennis Motiani of the Transportation Department.

True, but in 2010, Motiani's boss wanted to dump the Emergency Service Patrol to fulfill a recommendation from Governor Christie's privatization task force as a way to funnel the patrol's $12 million in federal funds elsewhere.

Its 90 drivers "can fix your flat ... give you a gallon of gas ... a jump if your battery [dies], but they won't tow you," Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said then. "If somebody runs out of gas, well ... this is not the nanny state."

But on Wednesday, at an event that Simpson didn't attend, the "nannies" had become "heroes." How had the rescuers been rescued?

State police and Transportation Department staffers fought for the program. They reminded Simpson that safety patrol workers set up flares and stabilize victims at crash sites so cops could clear congestion and prevent subsequent rear-end crashes. But the argument that sold it was about money, not safety. Commercializing the safety patrol was shortsighted, they said, since it could mean losing $12 million in federal funding and force motorists to pay fees.

So, Simpson capitulated, but he made changes. …

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