State police Sgt. John Rock is a man of many hats.

He could be a state Department of Transportation worker, standing on the roadside with a shovel.

Or a motorist traveling with his daughter by a broken-down SUV on a blustery winter day. Or a cowboy snapping photos along the historic Lincoln Highway.

All the while, Rock is armed with a radar gun.

In the past two months, Rock, commanding officer of the Somerset barracks, has launched “Operation Sunrise” on Route 30 – a notoriously fast, dangerous highway through central Somerset County.

The often-comical disguises conceal the main purpose of the intensive mission: To reduce speeding and fatalities.

“It keeps regular motorists who travel the road guessing as to when we’re going to be out there,” Rock said.

And it’s obviously having an effect.

During the latest speed trap from the Westmoreland County line to Route 281 near Stoystown on Wednesday, state police said they issued 24 citations and 18 warnings.

The tickets are comparable to two previous endeavors run by the state police since the beginning of the year.

More importantly, word spread quickly, forcing coal trucks and other vehicles to slow down.

Five miles away from where Rock and Trooper Loni Nist were stationed just west of Jennerstown, posing as a cowboy and cowgirl taking pictures, another trooper in a marked cruiser pulled over a coal truck shortly after the operation began at 6 a.m., Rock said.

Over the CB radio, the trooper heard other truckers warning of the heightened police patrols in the area.

“Every coal truck knew the place was saturated with troopers,” Rock said. “It was mission accomplished right there.”

In January, Rock and Trooper John Matchik donned white hard hats and yellow vests. Rock stood by the door of a PennDOT truck, while Matchik swept gravel from the side of the highway near Stoystown.

Last month, Rock and Nist, wearing heavy winter clothes, lingered by an inconspicuous, broken-down SUV near Stoystown Auto Wreckers.

They weren’t alone.

Three other chase cars typically wait for Rock’s signal to chase down speeding motorists, while two other marked cars run radar farther down the highway.

“Our intent is to let them know we’re out there, just slowing people down,” Rock said.

While “Operation Sunrise” is new to Somerset County, Rock said he started it successfully years ago when he was stationed in Greensburg. He said the initiative has been featured on Court TV.

So far, state police have concentrated on Route 30, particularly in Quemahoning Township around Stoystown. That’s where they have received complaints from township officials and residents about speeding vehicles.

“When you see somebody pulled over, you start to think about the speed limit,” said Jenner Township Supervisor Jim Henry, whose municipality does not have its own police force and relies on state patrols.

“Hopefully, other people will realize there is a speed limit they need to be following.”

Quemahoning Township officials have called for the speed on the heavily traveled highway to be reduced from 55 mph. Though PennDOT has lowered the speed limit to 35 mph for trucks, it has denied the township’s request to reduce it for all traffic.

“It’s vitally important to PennDOT,” said Kevin Stacey, a spokesman for the agency’s regional office in Hollidaysburg.

“We have an aggressive safety program. We couldn’t meet our safety goals without cooperation from law enforcement.

“When someone like Sgt. Rock uses all kids of unique enforcement techniques, that sends a message to the motoring public: Just because a cruiser isn’t visible doesn’t mean they can do what they want.

“People might not like it, but at the end of the day, it’s an effort to keep the roadways as safe as possible.”

Rock said state police hope to expand the speed traps to Route 160 north toward Central City and Windber, and on parts of Route 31 around Somerset.

Rock said he’s also preparing to launch “Operation Sunset,” an evening speed trap, in the spring.

The initiatives probably will take place two or three times a month, he added.

So motorists, beware: That construction worker or vagrant standing on the side of the road may not be who he seems.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of things up our sleeve,” Rock said with a laugh.



Kirk Swauger can be reached at 445-5103 or kswauger@tribdem.com.

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