By Mark E. Vogler
---- — Nobody is going to get fined or do any jail time for defying Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s 24-hour travel ban during the blizzard that belted the Merrimack Valley with up to two feet or more of snow over the past two days.
Area police departments reported stopping several people who shouldn’t have been out on the roads driving during between 4 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. yesterday.
But none of those drivers got cited for violating the governor’s orders. So, they didn’t face the stiff sanctions of a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.
“A few of them received a stern warning to get off the road if they didn’t have a good reason to be driving,” Andover Police Lt. John Pathiakis said yesterday. He noted that town police officers stopped “about 10 to 15 cars” over the time of the ban.
“They were questioned as to why they were out on the road. If the reason for their being on the road was not acceptable, they were advised to get off the road. It’s tough to go further with it, other than to explain to them they shouldn’t be on the road. I believe the stern warning had done the trick in most cases,” he said.
The governor’s controversial ban generated more than 600 comments on The Eagle-Tribune’s website yesterday, many of them highly critical of the governor’s threat of stiff consequences for violators.
“No need to threaten people with fines and jail time. No other states threatened their citizens. The guy’s a jerk. Could have put a ban without a threat,” wrote one irate reader.
Another reader found it “insulting that we are threatened” with a $500 fine. Adding, “Most people that get into trouble don’t get jail time!”
“Is this communist Russia? Does Deval think we are that dumb as citizens that we are all going to drive in a storm? If you need the government up your butt, making rational choices and decisions for you by threatening you, move to a communist China,” said another reader.
But the threat of stiff sanctions apparently worked. Only 30 stranded drivers were rescued overnight, and state police credited the travel ban — the state’s first since the Blizzard of ’78, a ferocious storm that dropped 27 inches of snow, packed hurricane-force winds and claimed dozens of lives.
Area police officials commended the governor’s ban with the tough sanctions.
“I absolutely believe it was necessary,” Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon said yesterday.
“The (negative) comments I heard from people who are making them are not common sense. There is no reason to be out in that storm to endanger your life and somebody else’s. I think the governor and the mayor (Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni) made the right call. Every once in a while, we have to give up our liberty to make our lives safer,” Solomon said.
“I think it’s an important thing to have. I have no problem enforcing it. But I want to make sure why the person is out. If we saw kids out joy-riding, we would have towed the cars and cited them. But we had no violations that we had to cite. People complied. I want to say ‘thank you’ to the citizens of Methuen,” he said.
Methuen police took their own measures to enforce the governor’s ban, by educating city residents about the dangerous driving conditions even after the storm began to peter out yesterday morning.
Police officers posted photos on the department’s Facebook page and over Twitter, showing the poor condition of the roads.
“It was a virtual tour of the city,” Solomon said. “People saw how bad things were and they would stay at home. They got the feeling of being out there without having to leave their house to satisfy their curiosity,” he said.
North Andover Police Chief Paul Gallagher credited the governor’s ban with “making a big difference” in enabling the town’s Department of Public Works to clear the roads without any problems while minimizing any potentially dangerous traffic situations.
“The public was excellent and the compliance was very good,” Chief Gallagher said.
“Everything went very well during the storm. There were no accidents, no people on the roadway and everybody was safe. The way I perceived it, the ban was to keep the public safe during the time frame. I don’t think the $500 fine or any jail time was the main purpose of the ban,” Gallagher said.
“We weren’t pushing for any criminal action. Even if we stopped someone, we gave them a verbal warning. I don’t think we had problems any way. There were no parking violations and everybody abided by the travel ban,” he said.
Lawrence Police didn’t cite anyone for violating the travel ban, though a few drivers may have been warned, according to Detective Thomas Cuddy.
“I think the ban was a necessary thing,” Cuddy said.
“Clearing the roadways is paramount. You have to let the DPW crews do their job and allowing them to do their job allows emergency personnel to respond as needed. There were 46 cars towed as part of the parking ban. To the best of our knowledge, nobody was cited for driving during the restricted hours,” he said.
Yesterday, the governor stood by his decision to issue the ban, noting that emergency crews only had to rescue a few dozen stranded drivers.
“All of us were trying to take lessons from other experiences, including the blizzard of ’78,” he said.
“In that storm, a travel ban wasn’t in place ‘til after the snow hit, and thousands of cars were already stranded. This time, most people were safely at their destinations before the snow started.
“I didn’t do it lightly,” said Patrick during a press conference yesterday. “This wasn’t about coming down hard on people. It was assuring everybody, the drivers and the emergency response team, were as safe as possible. ... I think it worked out really well,” the governor said.
The travel ban included exemptions for public utility and health care workers as well as delivery trucks and news media.
Several police departments were deluged with calls from citizens wanting to know whether it was OK from them to drive.
“A lot of people were calling in with excuses of why they got to drive,” Andover police Lt. Pathiakis said.
“We got a bunch of calls. Some people called 911, asking if they could drive. I think it (the travel ban) was an excellent idea. The governor says it was an extreme situation and it worked out well. It was a great decision on his part because it allowed cities and towns to get their roads clear,” he said.
A number of readers weighing in on The Eagle-Tribune website supported the governor.
“I’m no fan of Patrick, but your paranoia about communism notwithstanding, sometimes the governor has to take extreme measures in the interest of public safety because, yes, some people ARE that stupid, and their stupidity threatens MY (and YOUR) safety,” one reader said.