October 26, 2021

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Stranded on the turnpike? Safety patrol is there to assist

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Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol operator Noah Vye stands outside his vehicle at the Kennebunk Travel Plaza on Friday. The truck is sporting a light panel that unfolds when activated, to warn other motorists that something is awry ahead. Tammy Wells photo

KENNEBUNK — Noah Vye was driving south near Mile 10 a couple of weeks ago in his Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol truck when he came across a motorist trying to change a flat tire. It was particularly frustrating for the man, said Vye, because he was disabled, and was having trouble maneuvering with his prosthetic leg.

Vye changed the tire; it is what he does.

The motorist, a veteran, thought there would be a fee, but there wasn’t and isn’t: The Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol undertakes that service, and others, to motorists free.

“He was so happy,” said Vye.

As it turns out, the two had something in common — Vye too is a veteran, medically discharged from the U.S. Army after seven years because of back issues.

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Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol operator Noah Vye said he likes helping people and that the job offers something new every day. Tammy Wells Photo

He thanked the veteran for his service — and the veteran in turn thanked him for his, and both went on their way.

“I knew what he was feeling,” said Vye.

The flat tire stop was one of many Vye makes each day as a member of the safety patrol. The most he has made has been 22 in a day, he said.

Besides tire changes, safety patrol operators supply gas if a motorist runs out, provide jump starts, can patch a radiator hose and supply coolant and more — small repairs to get drivers on their way.

“Our objective is to get them off at the next exit,” said Mark Orrico, manager of the safety program on the Maine Turnpike, during a chat at the Kennebunk service plaza. “And when we can’t, we sit behind the disabled vehicle with the lights flashing and we deploy cones to give other motorists advance notice.”

The lights Orrico talked about are over and literally above the standard lighting package — the vehicle has a lighted panel that that unfolds and pops up on the roof of the full-size pickup truck that can be seen from a distance, alerting other motorists.

“That panel does wonders,” said Vye.

The patrol also gives rides to travelers if their vehicle cannot be repaired on the spot, and they don’t have friends or family around to call upon. And there is another service, too, motorists often travel with dogs, and breakdowns are unplanned, so water for canine friends can also be provided.

So far, in its five years of its operation, the Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol has performed about 5,000 assists. With added coverage in the past few years, the patrol is averaging about 1,200 assists annually.

Orrico said he expects that to increase to as many as 1,500 in 2021 because of more traffic due to pent-up demand after the 2020 strictures of the pandemic, and as Maine’s tourist season extends later into the year.

Vye joined the patrol, which is operated by AutoBase, Inc., about six months ago, and patrols the lower end of the ‘pike, from the New Hampshire border to Wells — a service that currently operates April to December. The service also operates year around, from Cumberland to Scarborough and Portland to Biddeford, during morning and afternoon commuter hours.

Orrico has been with the program since it came to Maine in 2016 and was the only operator for the initial 18 months here.

AutoBase, Inc., of New York contracts with several other states to provide safety patrol services, many of them in New England and in the mid-Atlantic states.

According to a news release announcing sponsorship of the patrol by GEICO, more than 1,000 additional hours of patrol time will be provided to motorists annually. As well as repairs, the safety patrol can provide temporary traffic control at minor accident scenes and assist the Maine State Police and other first responders when needed.

“The operators of the Safety Patrol, sponsored by GEICO, are truly heroes as they show up quickly to help these stranded motorists and get them to safety as quickly as possible,” Maine Turnpike Authority Director Peter Mills said in the news release.

Total cost of the Maine Turnpike Safety Patrol is $185,000 annually, of which 40 percent is offset by the sponsor.

On average, the safety patrol can get motorists on their way in about 18 minutes.

Orrico said the safety patrol often finds stranded vehicles as they patrol. They are also notified by motorists calling police, who alert the patrol, or drivers calling 999, which routes the caller to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Patrol operators receive training when hired, and on an ongoing basis and many, like Vye and Orrico, had prior experience.

“I enjoy helping people,” said Vye. “And it’s something new every day.”

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