Reckless and raging drivers and budget constraints are challenging Arizona Department of Public Safety officers charged with keeping Loop 101 safe through Scottsdale.
Left with Band-Aid approaches at enforcing traffic laws, DPS officers said they hope this year's first fatality Thursday on the approximate 14-mile Scottsdale portion of the 60-mile freeway doesn't signal a repeat of last year's deadly run.
There were eight fatalities in five crashes along the stretch from Scottsdale Road to the Loop 202 interchange from May 30 to Dec. 24, 2002. Twelve people died on the entire Loop 101 last year.
"People are trying to suggest the 101 seems especially treacherous, but they don't realize it is over two times as long as other Valley freeways," said DPS officer Steve Volden.
So far this year, there have been no fatalities on U.S. 60 or Interstate 10. Last year, there were five fatal crashes on the 25-mile U.S. 60 and 10 fatal crashes on the 30-mile I-10.
"We are short officers and we have been short for years and years," Volden said. "We still get the job done and write a lot of tickets, but we could use more officers.
"Driver error is such a contributing factor to the vast majority of accidents on this freeway. They are either driving too fast or they are driving recklessly."
Volden pointed to Thursday's rollover on Loop 101 that killed Jason Ford, 31, of Scottsdale as an example of driver error.
Witnesses said Ford was traveling at 100 mph when he attempted to exit at Raintree Drive, but hesitated and pulled back. The driver made a move toward the exit again before striking a freeway sign and losing control of his pickup.
Ford, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected after the vehicle overturned and struck an embankment. He died of massive head injuries.
No other vehicles were involved with the 1:25 a.m. crash.
On Tuesday, road rage, speeding and alcohol were blamed in a rollover crash that left a Mexican national, Jose Soto, 23, in critical condition at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital with severe head injuries.
Soto lost control of his Ford Explorer after attempting to cut off a driver who had honked at him for speeding, witnesses said. The vehicle rolled at least once before stopping.
Soto, who was not wearing his seat belt, was also ejected. A 12-pack of beer that had been in the vehicle's cab ended up stuck in the windshield, and beer bottles littered the road.
Despite the success of a two-week crackdown on speeders in March, Volden said the DPS does not have funding to keep a high number of patrol cars on the freeway. More than 2,000 speeders were ticketed during the $90,000 operation funded by a state grant.
"Having a high presence on the freeway has the most effect on slowing drivers down, but we can't always do that," Volden said.
DPS is also planning a saturation patrol along Loop 101 beginning Monday for 30 days. Operation Safe Commute 2003, an annual traffic-detail program, will target speeders and reckless drivers during rush hour.
Limited by the number of officers DPS can dedicate to Loop 101, the Scottsdale Police Department offered help earlier this month.
"Even though the 101 is outside of our primary jurisdiction it is still part of our community," said officer Scott Reed, Scottsdale Police Department spokesman. "So we are going to help out."
Lt. Mike Rosenberger, commander of the department's traffic enforcement section, said traffic officers patrol Loop 101 in between calls and whenever time permits.
"They are stretched pretty thin with their resources," Rosenberger said. "So rather than jump out during saturation patrols we are going to make it an ongoing effort and make our presence known."
Lack of enforcement notwithstanding, Volden said, "it all comes back to the driving habits of motorists that is creating problems for everybody. There is nothing on the highway that is unsafe. It is nice and flat. The lanes are wide, and the roadway is well-lit."