In effort to stem Causeway deaths, police will take to the sky _lowres

Image courtesy Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission -- A truck is pulled from Lake Pontchartrain Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. The vehicle went into the lake as a result of a crash on the Causeway Monday.

Motorists crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at more than the posted speed limit may soon have to keep an eye on more than just the crossovers, where officers often lurk to catch speeders. They will have to check the skies, as well.

Causeway police and Louisiana State Police are working out the details of a plan to patrol the 24-mile-long bridge from above, officials said Thursday.

Working from one of four State Police single-engine Cessnas, a trooper and a Causeway officer will try to spot speeders or reckless drivers and radio their locations to officers on the bridge, who can then pull them over, according to Carlton Dufrechou, the bridge’s general manager.

The plan is a result of recent fatal crashes on the bridge, including two in November, and is part of stepped-up speeding enforcement on the bridge. There are already more officers patrolling the bridge, and more of them are in unmarked units, Dufrechou said.

Causeway police reached out to State Police “about two months ago,” Dufrechou said, and they have been working on the plan since then.

“Louisiana State Police was extremely helpful,” he said.

But before any air patrols can begin, Causeway crews need to install signs warning motorists of eyes in the sky. Dufrechou expects it will take four to five weeks for the signs to be fabricated and installed. The patrols could begin soon after Mardi Gras.

During the patrols, a state trooper will pilot the plane while a Causeway officer acts as a lookout. When a potential speeder is spotted, the Causeway officer will check the car’s speed between fixed points and, if the driver is in fact speeding, will let units on the bridge know.

Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman, said the State Police have four Cessnas: two based in Baton Rouge and two in Ruston. They are primarily used for enforcement but also at times are used for search and rescue and aerial support of other missions, he said.

State Police regularly conduct aerial speed patrols on Interstates 12 and 55, as well, Manale said. In years past, it has been done on the Causeway, too, though that stopped several years ago, he said.

“This is not a completely new idea,” he said.

In the first of November’s two fatal crashes, a garbage truck slammed into the back of a work convoy installing signs on the bridge. The impact pushed a work truck — one specially designed to cushion the convoy from rear impacts — over the side of the bridge, killing the driver. The driver of the garbage truck — 56-year-old Darrell Benjamin, of Harvey — was booked on counts of negligent homicide, negligent injuring and reckless operation.

In the second incident, an SUV flipped over the railing on the southbound span, killing the lone occupant.

Since 1994, there have been 14 so-called “overboard” crashes on the Causeway, 11 of them resulting in deaths. Speed has been a factor in several, but officials also have warned drivers about the perils of distracted driving, which they say is becoming more of a problem.

Stepped-up enforcement is not the only front on which Dufrechou and the Causeway Commission are trying to prevent fatal crashes. They also have commissioned a study of enhanced railing designs, especially for the older, southbound span. Of the 14 overboards since 1994, all but one have occurred on the southbound bridge, a fact partially attributable to its concrete railings, which stand only 25 inches high, 6 inches lower than on the northbound span.

The study on railings is being conducted by engineers from Texas A&M University, who last month crash-tested two prototype railings at an airfield near Bryan, Texas. While the results were largely positive, engineers have decided to redesign and retest one of the two designs to see if it can be made safer, Dufrechou said.

That process should take another five or six weeks and will include having engineers come to the Causeway to test the new design’s resistance to pressure, much as they did last summer.

The Causeway Commission has discussed raising tolls to pay for the new railings, should that be required.

Whether it be air patrols or improved railings, however, Manale warned that neither is a panacea for fatal wrecks.

“It also comes down to the driver making good decisions behind the wheel,” he said.