WRAL Investigates: How safe are N.C. rest areas?
Posted November 23, 2010 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2010 7:01 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — Each year, an estimated 25 million drivers take a break at the 60 state-run rest areas across North Carolina. Most do so at their own risk.
The WRAL Investigates team found the state does not provide security at the rest stops, and law enforcement patrols are few and far between.
“We've had very few incidents, and it's something we're proud of, but we need to still maintain our attention to detail to make sure we have a safe facility,” said Don Lee, a roadside engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Lee manages the state's rest areas and says that attention to details includes design and lighting. Custodial staff members work at most rest stops from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but the DOT has no security force. That's left to local law enforcement and the Highway Patrol. One Johnston County rest area includes an office for troopers.
The state does not have a formal way to track crime at rest areas. However, in July, WRAL News reported that two men were robbed at gunpoint in a rest stop bathroom on Interstate 85 in Granville County. One man was shot and survived.
DOT officials call it an unfortunate, but rare rest area crime.
“Our whole goal here is to kind of give the public a feeling of assurance that they're in a safe environment,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Gordon.
Troopers have reported about 16,000 patrol visits to the 60 rest areas so far this year, according to Gordon. That comes out to less than one trooper stop per rest area per day.
Earlier this month, a WRAL Investigates reporter randomly visited three rest areas for a total of six hours and never saw law enforcement.
“I would feel comfortable with my family going there. However, I would also tell them to err on the side of caution,” Gordon said.
Most travelers WRAL News talked with said they follow that advice.
“This time of day, when it's bright and daytime, I don't have any problem with it,” said traveler Jim Finley. “Now, nighttime is a little different. We'd be hesitant to come here at night.”
Security cameras are above vending machines and are managed by the Division of Services for the Blind, which had them installed to deter vandalism. However, Lee says expanding the camera program is unlikely.
“With our so infrequent incidents, we are concerned about the cost of that application statewide,” he said.
With so few problems reported, increased patrols are not on the horizon either. The bottom line is that the millions who stop at North Carolina rest areas shouldn't expect round-the-clock security.
“We're going to provide the safest, cleanest place possible, but certainly common sense always needs to be used,” Lee said.
The DOT and Highway Patrol say it would be great to have armed security at rest stops, but it's not a realistic expectation given the state budget situation. The DOT encourages drivers to play a role in security and report any suspicious activity or security concerns. The Highway Patrol is also a call away at *HP on a cell phone.