COLUMBUS, Ohio—After weeks of transporting face masks and guarding prisons and state parks because of the coronavirus crisis, the Ohio State Highway Patrol was returning to its usual work patrolling highways. That is, until the current wave of protests spread across the state.
At the request of local officials, the highway patrol is being deployed to Cincinnati, Cleveland and other cities where protests are being held to set up roadblocks, as well as protect the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus from further vandalism.
“It’s an opportunity for us to diversify some of the things that we do,” said Col. Richard Fambro, the superintendent of the highway patrol, during Gov. Mike DeWine’s briefing Tuesday.
As a result, said Sgt. Ray Santiago, a patrol spokesman, “of course” it means there are fewer state troopers on the road to catch speeders and handle accidents.
Until the protests began last week, the patrol was ramping up its highway presence for the first time in more than two months, as motorists who stayed home because of state coronavirus health orders began driving again.
As the amount of highway traffic around the state dropped significantly, there were fewer crashes and speeders for state troopers to deal with. Between March 24 and May 26, the highway patrol issued 14,509 speed citations – down more than 80 percent from the 75,885 speeding tickets handed out during the same period last year, according to the patrol.
During this year’s three-day Memorial Day weekend, the patrol reported a 40-percent dip in crashes compared to 2019, as well as nearly a 30-percent decrease in drunken-driving cases, and a 27-percent drop in distracted-driving citations.
While the number of troopers on patrol never significantly decreased overall, Santiago said, the empty roads freed up the patrol to help address other problems created by the coronavirus, including transporting masks and other protective equipment, providing security at prisons and state parks, delivering food to seniors, and even reading to students via the internet.
Even as the coronavirus crisis starts to ebb, it will make lasting changes to how traffic stops are conducted, Santiago said.
“Just simple things like, you know, the amount of times we handle someone’s personal property — such as a driver’s license — or just how we approach a vehicle,” he said. “There’s just some common-sense things that that we find that we’re going to work going forward and be the new normal.”
So far, only one state trooper — Trooper Ben Addy, who provides security at the Ohio Statehouse — has tested positive for coronavirus. He has recovered and returned to work.