HOMER – Some days U.S. 441/Ga. 15 through Banks Crossing may be reminiscent of the 1970s TV show “CHiPs” as a pair of sheriff’s office motorcycles patrol and enforce the laws.
The motorcycle deputies are part of the Banks County Sheriff’s Office Specialized Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) Unit, but do not limit patrols to that area or Interstate 85.
“As we have progressed in the vision of improving traffic safety, the STEP Unit was created to help slow and reduce the number of fatality and injury crashes occurring in Banks County,” said Sheriff Carlton Speed. “Numerous studies have shown that active enforcement of traffic laws helps prevent traffic collisions. In response, our STEP Unit takes both an enforcement and educational approach. All deputies assigned to the unit are trained in areas of DUI enforcement, speed enforcement, child passenger safety and accident investigation."
Speed said while DUI and speed are important focuses of enforcement concentration, members of the unit also are trained as child passenger safety seat technicians. That allows them to teach parents and caregivers on the proper methods to transport infants, toddlers, and children on the roadways.
Additionally, the STEP Unit is responsible for analyzing crash statistics for the county each year.
“Assigned personnel inspect and examine all factors leading to our roadway fatalities,” Speed said. “From this, plans are then developed to address the issues revealed during each study. Our efforts include increased enforcement, safety checkpoints, and public education.”
Why BMW motorcycles?
Banks County Sheriff’s Office selected BMW motorcycles for use by STEP Unit deputies.
“When we began looking at motorcycles, we called several agencies from Florida to California,” Speed said. “We spoke to agencies that fielded both the Harley-Davidson and the BMW. At that time, these were the only two law enforcement motorcycles available. We found that the BMW had a lower overall maintenance cost than that of the Harley Davidson over the life of the motorcycle.
“The BMW is used by agencies worldwide,” Speed said. “As a result, BMW devotes part of its efforts to field a specific motorcycle for the needs of those law enforcement agencies. They partner with companies such as FMS Accessories to produce a superior product. They offer a three-year/36,000-mile warranty that covers the motorcycles and the equipment on them. Although the BMW is designed primarily for the roadway, the high clearance makes them capable of going off road if needed. BMW does offer specific law enforcement training along with off-road training. Both of our deputies assigned to the STEP Unit have taken the off-road training offered. It has added another tool to their belt to make them exceptionally safe riders.”
Deputies assigned to the motor unit typically have experience riding a motorcycle outside of the agency in their personal lives.
“Although that experience is useful, there is a great difference in patrolling and working enforcement on a motorcycle and riding one for a hobby,” Speed said. “Deputies go through an intensive motor school. This school is both physically and mentally challenging. The school covers slow speed maneuvers, emergency braking, and hazardous condition avoidance. In continuance of building their skills and staying current in their riding abilities, the STEP Unit partners with Gwinnett County Police Department’s Motor Unit by taking part in their monthly in-service training days.”
Dedicated to safety enforcement
As with most agencies, deputies assigned to the specialized unit may be called to duty for something else, but Banks County tries to minimize times STEP Unit officers are working in other areas.
“Deputies assigned to STEP are primarily tasked with traffic enforcement efforts, responding to collisions, and community outreach events,” Speed said. “They typically don’t respond to other calls for service during their tour unless the situation warrants their response to assist patrol deputies. Their schedule is designed to maximize efforts in reducing the number of traffic collisions by working during high traffic and high collision times of the day and week.”
Advantages of motorcycles
Speed said there are several advantages to having motorcycles patrolling.
“One of the advantages is its ability to maneuver through traffic quicker and easier than a patrol car,” Speed said. “The BMW is 200 to 300 pounds lighter than the Harley-Davidson, making it little more agile. When you talk about saving someone’s life or helping them when they’re injured, seconds can make a difference. Any safely improved response time is definitely desired from a public safety standpoint.”
In addition to improved response times, especially in peak traffic at Banks Crossing, deputies have found other advantages as well.
“The community tends to view them as more approachable than if they were in a patrol car,” Speed said. “STEP Unit Sgt. Chris Coombs has made the statement that in his 22 years of law enforcement, he has had more people approach him to give information or to just have a conversation – more so than he ever did while occupying a patrol vehicle.”
Relative costs of motorcycles
Asked how the costs of patrol motorcycles differs from that of a standard patrol vehicle, Speed said, “A law enforcement motorcycle is significantly less than a typical patrol vehicle, such as a Dodge Charger – a few thousand dollars less. Our motor units were purchased through our allotted vehicle SPLOST fund. The two Lidar speed detection devices being used were purchased with grant funds issued through the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.”
Patrols adapt in inclement weather
While STEP Unit deputies utilize standard patrol vehicles during rainy, icy, or snowy conditions, the motorcycles can be used during cold weather.
“The BMW is a very capable foul weather bike,” Speed said. “The design of the farings, rider position and heat management make it very comfortable in all weather. Part of riding in cold weather is keeping the wind off the rider. With the design of the faring and the windshield, the BMW does a good job of that. The motorcycles are also equipped with both seat and hand grip warmers as standard equipment in order to be more conducive to working in cold environments.”
Focusing on problem areas
“The Banks Crossing area, to include the I-85 corridor, is the highest traffic area in the county and the location where our motor units are primarily used,” Speed said. “It is also where the majority of our collisions occur. In addition, we receive neighborhood complaints regarding speeding and reckless driving throughout the county on a regular basis.
“While STEP utilizes concentrated patrols for enforcement in reported problem areas, we have also recently received a helpful tool,” Speed said. “A grant recently awarded to our agency from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety gave us the opportunity to purchase a speed detection trailer. With this tool, we are able to put an electronic deputy in complaint areas to help curtail cases of reported speeding and reckless driving.”