A friendly face in a bad place

Jason Powell

It's 7:15 as Jason Powell pulls his specially equipped pickup into Wednesday morning's rush-hour traffic on I-26 westbound.

By the looks of things, it will be a typical day. Some breakdowns. A few flat tires. In his two years on the job with the state's Incident Response team, he's seen it all. And he'll no doubt see it all again during his 12-hour shift that includes the morning and afternoon rush.

Back in the traffic-management center just off Aviation Avenue, his boss, John Wood, surveys 17 monitors that display live pictures from 75 traffic cameras around the choke points of the Lowcountry.

"Our job is to keep the traffic lanes clear," says Wood, who runs this program for the S.C. Department of Transportation. "Traffic backups cost money."

Along with Powell, whose radio call sign is SHEP 622, three other members of the S.C. Highway Emergency Program are cruising the main corridors of I-26, I-526 and the Ravenel Bridge looking for trouble. And they usually find it.

Heartless highways

Last month, SHEP drivers came to the aid of 750 motorists. In the past decade, they've helped more than 100,000.

We all know the side of a busy interstate is a bad place to be. Rush-hour traffic is ruthless, heartless and you never know when the worst will happen to you.

As Powell pulled up behind one stranded vehicle, you could see the smoke from the lady's cigarette billowing out the driver's-side window. Her S-10 Chevy pickup had run out of gas.

"The gas gauge is broken," she said as Powell put a few gallons into her tank to get her going again. "My son said not to worry, there was a quarter of a tank. I'm going to strangle him when I get home."

She thanked Powell and sped off into the building traffic. Powell pulled out behind her, always driving the speed limit, always getting passed by everybody, looking for other motorists in need.

"I just like helping people," said Powell, 49, who formerly worked the third shift as a mechanic for Coca-Cola. "Some people appreciate what we're doing out here. But some folks just think we're slowing them down. They want us to get out of their way."

Helping hands

Seeing that blue truck with its flashing yellow lights in your rearview mirror, however, can seem like a miracle when it's your car that breaks down.

The lady sitting on the roadside near Ashley Phosphate was fuming because her white Cadillac had stalled out, after four days in the shop. A tow truck was the only thing that could solve her problem.

The guy in the BMW that overheated was certainly happy to see Powell and needed only some water in his radiator to make it to the dealership for further assistance.

As Powell pulled up behind one car, the driver leaned over the passenger seat and threw up on the side of the road.

There are some problems he can't solve with a tire tool, a splash of gas or a battery charger. But he and his fellow SHEP drivers are happy to try, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Just dial *HP if it happens to you. All it costs is a thank you, a small price to pay for a friendly face and a helping hand in the madness that is rush-hour traffic.