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‘Wolf packs’ prowl for bad drivers
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts that will continue in next week’s edition.
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The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office parked this trailer on Gulf Boulevard in North Redington Beach to remind barrier island drivers of the speed limit.
GULF BEACHES – Motorists drive more safely along the coast than they do in other areas of the county, though beach towns have their share of accidents and discourteous drivers, statistics show.

Part of the reason is less traffic on the beach and increased enforcement by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and local police, prompting motorists to act more responsibly behind the wheel.

Sgt. Glenn Luben, a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office and head of its selective traffic enforcement program, is an expert on accident investigations and why they happen. His “wolf packs,” deputies who move about the county to catch drunken drivers and other violators, are directly responsible for getting bad drivers off the road.

Pinellas County reported 1,631 alcohol-related accidents in 2005. The crashes resulted in 39 fatalities and 1,162 injuries. About 23 people are hurt and one person dies each week in Pinellas County due to DUI-related accidents.

“We fan out all over the county, from Oldsmar to the beaches and further south,” Luben said of his wolf packs, which consist of about 30 to 40 deputies.

The team not only nab impaired drivers, but also grab wanted felons and other traffic violators as well. On a recent night about 1,200 vehicles passed through the net that snagged 17 arrests on 25 charges. Some 33 traffic citations were issued, and 11 vehicles were impounded.

Deputies stay out of cities such as St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, where local agencies have their own programs. That doesn’t mean, however, deputies can’t write tickets in those cities if they witness violations.

“There is a 35-mph speed limit on the barrier islands, except in some construction zones, and we enforce that,” Luben said.

That’s what local officials and the Big C Barrier Islands Governmental Council, a consortium of officials from 11 communities, wanted when a seven-month state study was conducted to determine a fair average speed limit for all of Gulf Boulevard from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach.

“The speed limits ranged from 30 mph to a high of 45 mph at one time,” Luben said. “There was no consistency.”

And, so, the 35 mph limit for all of the islands along Gulf Boulevard was struck.

The wolf pack is not designed to trap speeders and other violators. Deputies don’t hide behind signs and buildings.

“We’re not in that business,” Luben said. “We’d like to see everyone play by the rules so we didn’t have to write tickets.”

A recent incident, however, in which different speed limits were posted on both sides of Gulf Boulevard made people think otherwise.

“It was a civilian engineer or contractor who posted those signs and he made an honest mistake,” Luben said. “He changed them immediately when it was brought to his attention.”

Studies show that 85 percent of motorists obey traffic rules. The rest, no matter what law enforcers do, continue to break the law.

“Part of the reason is that residents and tourists acquired their driving habits from their home town or state,” Luben said.

New York drivers are more aggressive than those from Maine. California drivers are used to higher speeds.

“Too many people are in a hurry,” Luben said. “You would be amazed at what deputies see on the road.”

Even though barrier islands are packed with bars and restaurants, DUI arrests are lower than inland. That’s partly because people are more aware of enforcement activities. Educational programs, too, have made drivers aware of the dangers of driving while impaired, Luben said.
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