RALEIGH, N.C. — Fewer eyes are watching North Carolina's highways.
The state is woefully short of officers who protect highway work zones and ensure that long-haul trucks are safe to drive.
It is a situation that could have long-term ramifications.
Last year, Gov. Mike Easley ordered Division of Motor Vehicles enforcement officers to join the Highway Patrol. The move was made in an effort to save money and end a legacy of corruption within the DMV.
The officers are now called Motor Carrier Enforcement officers. At the entry level, they go through the same training as troopers, but they make about 20 percent less money.
That is where the problem starts.
MCE officers patrol North Carolina's highways for overweight trucks, equipment problems and other safety violations. But they are doing it while 69 of their 352 positions are vacant.
Sgt. Everett Clendenin of the Highway Patrol said recruiting is the issue.
MCE candidates go through the same 28-week boot camp that trooper candidates go through. If they make it, their starting salary is about $25,000 a year when they hit the road -- whereas a rookie trooper can earn as much as $32,000 a year.
A solution to the problem begins with the legislature.
Clendenin said it is the department's priority to bring MCE salaries more in line with troopers. He said the weigh stations and the work zones are still being covered. But, when it comes to road enforcement, the routine daily patrols -- where officers look for violators -- are undermanned.
As part of the merger, troopers are being cross trained on the duties of the MCE officers. That was planned before the merger took place, to allow troopers to fill in if the situation does not change soon.
The Highway Patrol insists the roads are being covered, and that will not change.