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A behind-the-scenes look at how ADOT, DPS monitor traffic on a holiday weekend

Holiday weekends are an opportunity for many Valley residents to get out of town, relax and recharge. But for ADOT officials and many first responders, the three-day weekend is anything but a vacation. Keeping the busy roads safe and clear for holiday travelers is a round-the-clock job.

It was fairly quiet late Friday morning at the Arizona Department of Transportation Traffic Operations Center in west Phoenix, which features a huge wall of TV monitors that access 500 cameras covering the state’s highways.

“We keep eyes on ADOT’s 7,000 miles of the state highway system via our traffic cameras, and we're able to respond to incidents and get our crews out there to clear the incidents and crashes that occur,” said ADOT spokesman Doug Pacey.

It was the proverbial calm before the storm. There had been a handful of minor accidents and one rollover on the Valley’s highways.

Pacey says traffic starts to pick up on Friday afternoons, increases Friday evening, slows overnight, then spikes again Saturday morning. The cameras monitor traffic 24/7 but Pacey says on holidays, there are three hotspots around Phoenix.

“Folks who are headed north on I-17 out of Phoenix, State Route 87 out of the Mesa area toward the Rim Country, we also see traffic on I-10 westbound coming from the Tucson area into the Phoenix area,” he said.

Pacey says accidents and emergencies are a big variable. Depending on location and severity, they can cause delays that run from a few minutes to several hours. He says holiday travelers should always pack extra supplies, and be mentally prepared for potential delays.

“Just pack your patience and be ready for that extra traffic on a Friday afternoon or a Friday evening,” he said. “But especially coming back at the end of the holiday weekend, because most people are coming back at the same time.”

By Sunday morning, State Route 87 near Fountain Hills had seen two accidents, including a fatal crash. Along Interstate 17, there had been a brush fire and the homeward traffic hadn’t even started.

Monday afternoon, the traffic back to the Valley was already underway.

Martin Sotelo is a trooper with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. He patrols I-17 north of Anthem. Moments after I got in the patrol car with him, he was zooming north on the freeway, responding to an accident just south of Black Canyon City on the southbound lanes.

He made his way across the dirt median in his DPS Camaro.

“I gotta try to do what I gotta do to get to the collisions,” he said.

He arrived at the accident scene a few minutes later, and two other troopers were already there. It was a relatively minor accident, with no serious injuries, although one car needed a tow truck.

Traffic was stacked up around a curve, and it was impossible to see how far back it stretched. One trooper began waving to get traffic moving, because the cars involved in the accident were now off to the side of the road.

The other trooper was filling out accident reports. Sotelo checked with him and then resumed his patrol.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, he had written nine citations, most for speeding. The top speeder was doing 107 miles an hour.

“It’s just not worth it,” Sotelo said, explaining that driver had a child in a car seat.

While drivers in muscle cars like Mustangs and Camaros might be the most likely suspects for speeding tickets, Sotelo says the cars that get his attention might surprise you.

“Priuses,” he said. “If it’s speeding, it’s probably a Prius. And the Teslas.”

He pings a car with his LIDAR, a laser device that can measure speed. The driver is doing 90 miles per hour, 15 over the limit.

“It’s a black sedan, you can see it in the middle lane,” Sotelo says.

Sotelo caught up to the car and pulled it over. The driver said it’s the second time he’s been stopped today for speeding. Sotelo pulled up the driver’s record and sees he was also stopped five weeks ago for speeding.

Sotelo says he tries to give people the benefit of the doubt.

“If they’ve never been pulled over and stuff like that, I would love to think that it’s a one-time thing,” he said. “And yes, they’re going to be given a citation, but it’s more fitting of somebody that doesn’t have a prior history.”

Back on the freeway after giving the citation, Sotelo resumed his patrol. He and his fellow troopers continued trying to make sure that drivers and their passengers got home safely at the end of the holiday weekend.

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Al Macias, former KJZZ news director, is part of an elite class of trusted, veteran journalists who have covered Arizona news for more than 30 years.