Along Virginia highways, private security guards are watching rest stops. In California, the state plans to let a business take over a rest area and open a gas station and restaurant. In North Carolina, signs warn travelers about crime.
For weary vacationers, highway rest stops are peaceful oases, a place to change drivers, use the bathroom and stretch their legs. But criminals like them, too, and state police agencies are fighting back by treating rest stops more like city streets.
National crime statistics do not break out crimes committed at rest stops, and there are not problems in every state. But police say that motorists should not expect any area to be completely safe. They say that with about 188 million car trips taken this summer, leisurely tourists may let down their guard -- and criminals are counting on that.
"When you're on vacation, you are relaxed," says 1st Sgt. Anthony Smith of the Maryland State Police. "You're not as in tune as if you are going to work every day. You park your car, have a little picnic lunch. Criminals know these things."
Three more reasons rest stops are perfect places to commit crime: location, location, location.
"I think criminals perceive rest stops as being easier targets," said Lt. Col. W. Gerald Massengill, director of field operations for the Virginia State Police. "Quite often, they are in isolated areas with not many people around."
Dan King, who oversees security for Host Marriott Services Corp., which operates about 100 travel plazas along the Eastern Seaboard, elaborated: "It is an environment attractive to someone who wants to commit a crime. Once they commit the crime, they get back on the road and drive away."
Marriott's operations include travel plazas along the New York Thruway, the New Jersey Turnpike, the Florida Turnpike and roads in Illinois and Ohio. King says his plazas, which have restaurants and gas stations, do not have crime problems because of bright lighting and 24-hour-a-day staffers. But he sees a difference with state-run rest stops that are mainly restrooms, parking lots and grassy picnic areas.
Usually states step up their surveillance of rest stops in response to problems.
After two recent rest-stop homicides, Virginia officials set up offices in rest stops for state troopers to use to write their end-of-day reports. Private security guards work at four rest areas. Workers are pruning shrubs and moving picnic tables.
Confronted with two recent homicides at rest stops, Arkansas also is considering a range of safety measures, including increased police patrols, video cameras and better lighting, and 24-hour private security guards. Some rest stops may be closed.
After the murder of a British tourist at a north Florida rest stop in September 1993, the state staffed its rest areas with 24-hour armed security guards. Now, officers patrol them just during the night. "Someone can pull in there and feel comfortable going to sleep," said Maj. Ken Howes, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.
North Carolina has Operation Rest Assured, started in October 1993 after a spate of serious crimes, including robberies, the murder of a rest stop custodian and the death of basketball star Michael Jordan's father, who was killed when he stopped on the side of a highway. Besides putting up warning signs, armed officers from the state's Department of Motor Vehicles patrol the rest stops.
"It has virtually wiped out stuff in the rest areas, robberies and prostitution," says Mitzi Powell, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles.
Maryland, facing a problem with nuisance crime, now assigns state troopers to walk around rest stops and talk to people from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. "The criminal activity is almost nonexistent," says Smith.
Pub Date: 8/18/97