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ST. AUGUSTINE -- With his red hard hat and bright orange reflector vest, Pat Thomason looked like a road surveyor hunched over a tripod in an Interstate 95 construction zone last week.
But the scope he peered through wasn't for checking elevations -- it was a Pro Laser III speed detector. The readings he barked into his walkie-talkie weren't in degrees, inches and feet -- they were in miles per hour.
Thomason, 44, is no surveyor. He's a stealth cop -- a Florida Highway Patrol trooper working in disguise to curb the rising number of accidents in construction areas on the state's major highways.
According to state records, those crashes increased from 2,489 in 1997 to 2,943 in 2001 -- while the death toll in that period went from 24 to 37. Injuries totaled 2,986 in 2001 -- up from 2,737 in 1997.
Thomason, a sergeant and 21-year veteran, is a foot soldier in ''Operation Hardhat,'' a new traffic safety program that features troopers cloaked as construction workers to catch unsuspecting speeders. They lurk in dump trucks, peek from behind road graders and pretend to be surveyors.
When speeders **** by, they call ahead to a ''wolf pack'' of motorcycle troopers waiting down the road to write expensive tickets, some in the hundreds of dollars.
Last Wednesday morning, for example, Thomason and his colleagues set up on I-95 near the Duval-St. John's county line, writing tickets at the rate of one every two minutes or so.
Troopers want motorists to know they are using these tactics. Perhaps the program's most potent weapon against speeders is the uncertainty it causes, they say.
''Is he a surveyor? Is he a construction worker? Or is he a trooper?'' said Miami-Dade FHP Lt. Julio Pajon. 'The driver won't know until it's too late. And the next time that driver goes through a construction zone he'll think, `That may be a trooper in disguise -- who could give me a $200 ticket.' ''
South Florida drivers may be seeing undercover troopers like Thomason soon.
The Miami-Dade FHP command staff will meet today to decide how to set up Operation Hardhat. The Broward County troop is planning to hold a similar session soon.
In Miami-Dade County, construction-zone crashes jumped from 281 in 1997 to 455 last year, according to state records. Two people died in 2001, compared with three in 1997.
In Broward County, there were 121 crashes in 1997 and 222 in 2001, with no fatalities in 2001 or 1997. There was one construction-zone fatality in 1999 and two in 2000.
Road-work areas provide a ''target-rich environment'' for catching speeders, troopers say.
In less than two hours Wednesday morning, Thomason and his squad of seven motorcycles and one patrol car ticketed 63 speeders. All of them were going at least 10 miles an hour above the speed limit.
The takedown began as Thomason, dressed in blue jeans and an Old Navy T-shirt, scanned oncoming traffic for cars that were moving faster than the rest in the 60-mph zone. He saw one and lined up the tiny red dot in his laser's viewing screen on the front of the vehicle. He squeezed the trigger and the speed displayed on a screen.
''I've got a maroon Taurus in the left lane . . . with New Jersey tags . . . at 81,'' Thomason called into his radio.
His words flowed out of the headset of a motorcycle trooper a quarter mile down the road. The trooper eased into traffic and came alongside the offending driver. He flicked on his flashing blue lights and motioned the maroon Taurus over.
The speeder got a $159 ticket. And he's lucky -- if construction workers had been present at the time, the fine would have doubled to $318.
In other types of speed-limit enforcement, it's usually hard to catch professional drivers such as truckers, whose rigs are equipped with scanners, radar detectors and CB radios.
But troopers say Operation Hardhat is pulling in a higher number of big rigs than troopers usually catch.
The reason for the stealth police work: FHP Maj. Grady Carrick says construction zones are fraught with hazards that drivers just don't have time to correct for, such as uneven pavement, steep or nonexistent shoulders, sudden lane shifts and slowing traffic.
Carrick, who initiated Operation Hardhat, is a former troop commander in Miami-Dade who now heads the FHP's Jacksonville area.
Carrick's North Florida troop handled 10 of the 31 fatal construction-zone crashes last year.
No matter the stealth and tricks troopers use, he said, there will always be people speeding through construction zones and on highways.
''It's human nature to take your foot off the gas when you see a cop,'' Carrick said. ``What this covert speed enforcement offers is the proposition of them never knowing when you're there watching.''