By John M. Glionna Los Angeles Times
LAS VEGAS — Call it the Vegas itch.
For many motorists headed here from Southern California, the obvious scratch is to gun the engine down that impossibly long incline on Interstate 15 across the Nevada border into Primm, adrenaline pumping, answering Sin City’s dizzying siren call.
After hours of endless desert straightaways, the garish lights of Primm are just a taste of the Strip, which shimmers just over the next ocher-colored mountain or two.
Once in Nevada, the two-lane highway spills into four lanes. For all too many motorists, the odometer spins: 80 mph quickly becomes 90, then 100 and faster. Along the 26 miles between Primm and the southernmost tip of the Strip, many vehicles hit the radar at triple-digit velocity. The average speed for vehicles pulled over is 95 mph, 25 mph over the posted limit.
A Lamborghini was clocked a few years back going 187 mph. The trooper who issued the ticket keeps a framed copy in his office.
“I’ve felt the rush – especially at dusk,” said Jon Klassen, a deputy chief for the Clark County Fire Department. “You’re cruising down Mountain Pass and you see the lights on the Nevada side. Whiskey Pete’s is just a nine-iron away. It’s wide open and remote. The urge is to let it fly.”
But the Nevada Highway Patrol is tired of thrill rides that can tangle the interstate for hours on end with crashed cars and maimed bodies.
So troopers have a warning: If drivers break a speed law, or even a minor section of the vehicle code – if they change lanes without signaling – they will be stopped. And they will get a ticket.
It’s all part of the department’s “zero tolerance” program, which targets the interstate from Primm to the M Resort Spa Casino at the far southern end of the Strip. Started in January, with massive freeway message boards announcing it, the crackdown aims to change the way motorists drive the stretch.
“Many people can’t wait to get to Vegas to start that vacation from life,” Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Loy Hixson said. But if they don’t slow down, he said, they will soon be “like moths headed for the little zapper.”
On most days, 1 in 4 Vegas visitors arrives from Southern California.
Last year, 26 percent of the 39.7 million tourists here were from the Los Angeles-Orange County area. And more than half of those travelers arrived by road. In May, the stretch between Primm and the Strip saw 42,687 inbound vehicles a day.
“Some 99.9 percent of the people driving from L.A. to Vegas take I-15,” said Scott Russell, a senior research manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “I drive a 2012 Camaro, and I won’t go over 75 on that stretch. I know those troopers are out there.”
And getting nabbed for speeding on Nevada highways can prove expensive.
Tickets for exceeding the 70-mph limit start at $190, with court costs pushing the total to $300 or more. More egregious speeds can bring fines of $600. Drivers caught at 120 or higher may also face a reckless-driving charge and a $1,500 fine.
Hixson emphasized that padding state coffers is not the goal. “There’s no such thing as putting a dollar figure on somebody’s life. This is about saving lives, not about the money,” he said.
Klassen, who supervises the Fire Department’s emergency medical services, has arrived at too many high-speed wrecks north of Primm along I-15. “Our guys out there see a lot of heavy trauma on that stretch – the high speeds bring catastrophic injuries,” he said.
“Once out of control, most speeding cars don’t stop until they’re 100 feet off the road. At night, there are no lights out there. The little blurb in the paper just says two were killed in a crash on I-15. But when you’re out there, you know a woman’s head was crushed or a man lost his limbs.”
Along I-15 north, the high speeds and the resulting mayhem start even before the Nevada line.
For years, the 150 miles between Barstow and Las Vegas have been among the most lethal stretches of highway in America. Two decades ago, fatalities topped 100 a year, a toll that has since dropped.
Last year saw 17 deaths between Barstow and the Nevada border, with the current year on pace to equal that mark, said Don Spiker, a public information officer for the California Highway Patrol in Barstow. He said California officers also were making a strong effort to catch speeders.
Over in Nevada, zero tolerance seems to be working.
For the first six months of 2013, compared with the same period last year, injury accidents in the crackdown zone fell 56 percent, Hixson said.
Troopers issued 8,000 citations for the period, compared with 6,000 in 2012. So far this year there has been only one fatal crash on the stretch, compared with four in the early part of last year.
On a recent day, Nevada Trooper Nate Peterson sat along I-15 in his blue Chevrolet Caprice, a cruiser without light bars for camouflage. His radar gun was switched on for just minutes when a Vegas-bound minivan whizzed past at 94 mph.
He gave chase, gunning the cruiser to 116 mph. “They’re going way too fast – it shouldn’t take me this long to catch up,” he said.
Peterson, 32, an eight-year veteran, said he once stopped a Bentley inbound from California traveling 150 mph. “It took me 14 miles just to catch up with him,” he said.
He gives many speeders both a ticket and a reprimand.
“When I ask people about their speed, they’ll say they were just excited to be this close to Vegas,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s been a long drive. I’m tired.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s another reason to slow down.’ “
Peterson eventually caught up to the speeding van with California plates and issued a ticket.
“We give 85 percent of our citations to people en route to Vegas – those driving like maniacs to get here and start having a good time,” he said.
“But when the fun is done, they drive slower on the way home.”