Monday, October 16, 2000

Vans aid stranded motorists




By Joe Wessels
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nearly all drivers have had it happen to them: stranded on the berm of a busy highway, nowhere to turn for help, often scared and alone.

        All the while, cars and tractor-trailers zoom past at startling speeds.

        But in Greater Cincinnati, help can come in a white van pulling up with enough yellow blinking lights to make any tow-truck driver envious. It is the ARTIMIS/CVS Good Samaritan Van.

        Out pops Mark Gaffin, a 40-year-old man with navy blue overalls and a reflective yellow vest.

        “I'm with the ARTIMIS/CVS road service,” Mr. Gaffin says. “It's free.”

        Every morning and afternoon rush hour, Monday through Friday, five vans travel roads around Greater Cincinnati looking for stranded motorists, debris and accidents. Their goal: safety and easing traffic congestion.

        Their philosophy: The sooner cars are off the highway or no longer a roadside distraction, the sooner traffic starts moving.

        Mabel Crawford, 73, left her home in Mount Healthy headed to Ashland, Ky., boat in tow. At the Mosteller Road exit of Interstate 275 in Sharonville, one of the boat trailer's tires failed.

        Mr. Gaffin, turning around to assist a motorist he spotted on the highway's opposite lanes, noticed Mrs. Crawford standing alone next to the boat, without a vehicle to tow it. Mrs. Crawford's husband had gone to search for a replacement tire.

        Within 15 minutes, Mr. Gaffin had the trailer tire repaired enough that it could be moved to another location.

        “This proves there are still good people left in this world,” Mrs. Crawford said. “I think it's wonderful.”

        Each driver is an ASE-certified mechanic and a trained emergency medical technician. They most commonly help people change tires, fill gas tanks, remove roadway debris and check on aban doned vehicles. If they find a problem, they can usually correct it and send people on their way. However, if the vehicle's problems are more serious, a bench in the van's rear can take at least six people to a nearby, and safer destination.

        In 1992, Cincinnati saw its first Good Samaritan van.

        The ARTIMIS system costs $4 million per year to operate, according to Timothy D. Schoch, ARTIMIS deputy program manager. Funding comes from both the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Ohio foots 75 percent of the bill, while Kentucky pays 25 percent - nearly equal to the area in each state the system covers.

        ARTIMIS, or the Advanced Regional Traffic Interactive Management & Information System, operates through a control center downtown where 67 cameras and 1,100 vehicle detectors are monitored. In addition, they collect information from the five Samaritan vans and one aircraft.

        In turn, ARTIMIS relays information to the public via 530 AM, 40 overhead electronic changeable signs, recorded telephone messages (333-3333 or 211) and a Web site (www.artimis.org).

        ARTIMIS pays 51 percent of the Good Samaritan van program. The other 49 percent comes from program sponsor CVS Pharmacy. Operating costs run about $145,000 a van per year.s, bringing the program's total cost to around $725,000.

        But to people who benefit, the costs seems small.

        At 8:10 a.m. Thursday along westbound I-275 near the Route 747 exit, Andrew Stamp, 23, found himself a short distance from work in Springdale - with an empty gas tank. His smile can be seen from his rearview mirror as the Samaritan van pulls up behind his car. He has heard of the service, and knew shortly he would be on his way.

        “It's nice knowing people are out here watching out for people,” he said as Mr. Gaffin took from the van's on-board gasoline tank and filled Mr. Stamp's tank.

        Mr. Gaffin is used to the accolades he hears on his route. In fact, the word “angel” appears to stick out on the stack of comment cards filed at the ARTIMIS control center.

        Mr. Gaffin's only complaint: “I know I could do more. I like to stay busy,” he said.

        “Sometimes people call me the knight with the big white horse,” Mr. Gaffin said. “To set the record straight: We're not angels.” He pauses. “We're just like everybody else.”

       



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