Cut Off

Bob Appel is an early-morning kind of guy. A two-time state truck-driving champion who's been hauling freight for Roadway Express for nineteen years, he usually slips behind the wheel of his orange-and-blue semi a little after 3 a.m. On this morning, April 15, a monsoon of snow is falling, the roads are slushy and, even without traffic, the going is slow. It's a spring storm, at least, which means little ice and decent traction. Still, on a normal day, Appel's trip from Aurora to Colorado Springs would take an hour and forty minutes. Today it's a three-hour haul.

Wearing his blue coveralls and carrying a mug of hot coffee, Appel is chipper on these early-hour shifts, and a paragon of safe driving. "If people want to get around me, I give 'em all the room they need," he says.

Since he makes this drive down Interstate 25 a couple of times a week, Appel knows that Castle Rock is a real trouble spot for traffic. "Some of the ramps are real short, some are real goofy," he says. "They just get dumped on the highway." "They," more often than not, are "executives who, when they get on the highway, think they own it," says Appel. He believes that enforcing the speed limit would go a long way toward reducing traffic troubles.

In the snow, of course, enforcing the speed limit is not a problem. The roads look like undulating sheets of white sand, and the journey from Interstate 225 to I-25 to the Springs is a slushy parade of sidelined cars and trucks. A pickup is broken down at 225 and Alameda. A squad car has pulled over a Ford Contour at 225 and Mississippi. Somewhere between Lincoln Avenue and Castle Rock, a Ford pickup suddenly cuts in front of Appel. "This guy has no business being over there," he says.

Although Appel sees a lot of incidences of what the police would call road rage, he says he doesn't know what to do about it. "There's so many of them, I don't know where to start."

He could begin with the cellular phone tucked in his pocket. It's his link to Highway Watch, a prototype Colorado program that arms truckers with a special phone number to dial when they see anything bad on the road--debris, accidents, stranded motorists and, yes, even aggressive drivers.

Highway Watch, the first program of its kind in the nation, is the brainchild of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association (the truckers' union) and was designed as a kind of traveling Neighborhood Watch, where truckers would serve as extra eyes on the road, giving information to police, and--through the local radio stations--to motorists.

There are 200 drivers in Highway Watch, says CMCA president Greg Fulton, who wants to sign up 1,000 drivers by the end of the year. In a few years, CMCA hopes that every state will have a program of its own.

The state contributes no money to Highway Watch. Drivers who volunteer must supply their own cell phones. They spend an hour in training, taught by other volunteers from the Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado State Patrol. Their calls are received by Airwatch America, a company that reports traffic conditions to area radio stations. It's all done on "goodwill," says CMCA spokesperson Donna Lee.

At first this goodwill program sounds like bad news for the pedal-to-the-metal crowd. Despite the fact that roads are statistically safer now than ever before ("Hell on Wheels," December 3, 1998), law enforcement is attacking road rage. This past March, local police departments teamed up to slow down aggressive driving, issuing 1,074 citations in one day; on just one day last week, May 12, they issued another 269.

But Highway Watch drivers "are in no way law enforcement," says CSP spokesman Karl Kay. The log books appear to bear him out. Airwatch America logged only 41 calls from truckers between January 28 and May 12. Most of them pointed out accidents: rollovers, cars on fire, jackknifed semis and spilled loads. Only one was a road-rage call: a bad driver at Santa Fe and C-470. The trucker told an Airwatch reporter, "This person should not have a license to drive." Then he laughed.

"That number [41] surprises me--that sounds low from what I've heard from there," says Fulton. Still, he notes that he is not "discouraged, by any means." He points out that for emergency situations, drivers call 911 instead of Airwatch and that some drivers are still sorting out in which situations--debris, for instance--to call in at all. "It's a building-block process," he says. "You'd love to have a lot of calls, but then that would mean there's a whole lot more problems out there."

So the cops may catch you for driving like a wacko, but the truckers probably won't. Let's face it," Appel says. "There's people out there that shouldn't be out there. I don't know what it's going to take."

However, since he volunteered for Highway Watch, Appel has called only five times, reporting traffic jams and accidents. If he wasn't busy driving his own truck, he says, he'd probably have made thirty by now. Just as he says this, a truck cruises by and throws up a deluge of slush across the front window. "That was totally uncalled for," he says. But no call is made.

A Nissan Sentra limps along near exit 188. "If you want, we can call that in as a Highway Watch," Appel offers. Great idea, only the bad weather somehow interferes with the transmission, and the call doesn't go through.

At 4:40, Appel's alarm goes off. He should be pulling off to have his truck weighed about now, but he's still twenty minutes from the weigh station near Monument. In the opposite direction, a slow-moving plow leads a convoy of twenty vehicles, their lights turning the guardrail into moving shadows. So far, drivers who are stuck in traffic along the Front Range have been calling a Denver country-radio station to report conditions. Appel hasn't reported anything. In most cases, rescue vehicles are already on the scene of the accidents he passes. The Highway Watch apparently has nothing to watch.

On the trip back to Denver, Appel passes a stalled van at the 172 mile marker, all alone. Finally, at the suggestion of his passenger, a call is made. The Airwatch people are supposed to ask for the truckers' IDs and quiz them about the situation, but instead, they take down the information in ten seconds, say thank you and hang up. "They usually ask for a road-watch ID," Appel explains. "But they probably had enough for today."

So why hasn't Appel made any calls this morning?
"It's not the safest thing to do at the moment," he says. "The conditions you're in--if you're not careful, you'll be calling yourself in."

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T.R. Witcher