Catching Speeders No Longer Just a Black-and-White Issue : Law enforcement: The California Highway Patrol sometimes uses cars painted untraditional colors to fool drivers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a sky blue Mustang last month. And it will be a bright white model later this summer. But, for now, beware of a tan Chevrolet Caprice zooming along the highway.

It is the latest car in a rainbow of colors used by the California Highway Patrol to catch speeders in Ventura County.

"I know they don't see me because of the color of my car," CHP Officer Mark Stone said recently as he cruised the Ventura Freeway, periodically roaring up behind unsuspecting drivers.

CHP officials in Ventura County said they have used the different-color cars since August, primarily to crack down on commercial trucks that exceed highway speed limits. But, so far, cars have received most of the tickets.

In 1990, cars of untraditional colors were used in issuing 421 citations in the county, 120 of them to truckers, authorities said. In the first five months of 1991, officers in the special cars wrote 260 citations, with 115 given to truckers.

The CHP began the statewide "specially marked patrol vehicle" program in March, 1990, with eight such cars. In October, 60 more cars of various colors were dispatched throughout the state to combat increasing truck accident rates.

Injury and fatal accidents in which trucks were at fault climbed from 3,320 in 1982 to 5,565 in 1988, authorities said.

Statistics on the effectiveness of the new strategy to combat truck accidents are not available yet for the state or Ventura County, authorities said.

However, during a pilot program in 1987, truck-caused injury accidents dropped 11.2% on five freeway segments patrolled by the different-color cars.

Fatal accidents on the stretches of road fell by 33%, authorities said.

Authorities said that traditionally it has been difficult to monitor truckers, who often alert each other to the presence of CHP units with citizens band radios, authorities said.

Sitting in cabs that are high off the ground, truckers also can easily spot black-and-white patrol cars.

"It's an edge they've always had," Stone said. At least it was, until the Highway Patrol started changing its colors.

The cars still bear a Highway Patrol insignia on white doors but they come in a variety of designer shades, including maroon, yellow and gray, CHP spokeswoman Alice Huffaker said.

Some of the cars are simply painted differently. But others have been modified to make their profiles even lower.

CHP identifications no longer grace the roof or rear end of the cars. Red lights have been reduced in size or sometimes hidden behind mirrors.

The Ventura County office has the use of one car at a time, but the vehicles are often exchanged with others to keep truckers on their toes, Stone said.

Stone, who has a special interest in commercial enforcement, said he primarily watches out for trucks that are tailgating or speeding.

He writes between five and eight tickets a day, giving 10% of them to cars.

"If a guy's going by me at 85, I'm hard-pressed to let him go," Stone said.

He said that people raced by him at 90 m.p.h. when he was in the small blue Mustang.

But the different-color cars are not without their problems.

Some people are just plain suspicious when he tries to pull them over, Stone said.

"Some of them don't want to stop," he said. "They feel cautious about a car stopping them that's not black and white."

During a recent patrol, Stone perched on a surface street where he enjoyed a bird's-eye view of the freeway.

Stone scanned the traffic about 1,000 yards away through an opening in some trees and bushes.

"There we go," he said. "There's a good truck."

Stone pulled the tan car onto the street and headed for the highway, where he soon paced a Salvation Army truck at 75 m.p.h.

"I didn't see him," said truck driver Gus Hotwagner, 50, after getting a ticket. "I usually spot them."

Some of the truck drivers are wise to the ways of the different-color cars.

They see the tickets as more of an inconvenience than anything else, Stone said.

But other people aren't so generous in their views.

"I think the idea stinks, myself," said Paul Koch of Camarillo.

The 21-year-old was clocked at 85 m.p.h. as he rushed down the Conejo Grade in a dusty blue Buick to take his friend to work.

Koch, who protested that he was traveling no faster than 78, said he always scans the rearview mirror for patrol cars.

But he said he never expected the CHP to be traveling in anything other than a black-and-white car.

"Not the Highway Patrol," he said. "Undercover narcs, maybe."

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