Wind whipped light snowflakes around the tall, stoic trooper as he climbed into his patrol vehicle. He turned the key over in the ignition. The big, built-for-speed engine rumbled to life.
Before the trooper started his job, he needed to make sure that all of his equipment was working properly. It’s a task repeated every day.
Tuning forks are used to ensure that the radar will be at the correct frequency, the computer gets booted up, and he logs into all of the computer programs he’ll use throughout his shift.
It’s been snowing off and on for hours before he hits the road and he’s surprised that there haven’t been more accidents. He has one mission while he’s on patrol, he said: to keep drivers safe.
Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Randy Starkey has been a trooper since 2007 and was promoted to district lieutenant in late 2018. He’s noticed a lot of changes over the years, especially since the latest energy boom has hit the area.
“We’ve been patrolling WYO 93 and 95 a lot more lately due to the heavy traffic and out-of-state drivers,” Starkey noted. “(The traffic’s) really been picking up since last summer.”
Randy and his family moved from Fremont, Nebraska in 2001 for better opportunities.
“We drew a circle on the map that included western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming,” Starkey recalled. “We closed our eyes and picked a place on the map that would be our new home.”
Niobrara County is where the finger landed and Lusk was their new home.
Starkey started with the Niobrara County Sheriff’s Office and patrolled the county for four years before joining the highway patrol.
He quickly raised in the ranks. He now covers Niobrara, Converse and the north half of Platte counties.
Desk duty has kept him more in the office lately. He misses being on the road.
“You think you’ve seen it all,” he said. “Until your next stop.”
He loves being behind the wheel.
“You get to see the world,” he said. “You get to meet people from all over. And you really can’t beat the scenery.”
Heading down WYO 93, Starkey manages the radio and radar while still watching the traffic coming and going. Thankfully, the snow has stopped and the roads are more wet than icy.
“I think we’ll turn around and catch up to that guy,” he said. A tan pickup going the opposite direction caught his attention.
“Did you catch what I saw?” he asked. “He didn’t have a front license plate, which is okay, but I didn’t see a back plate after he passed.”
Starkey mentioned what he learned at the highway patrol academy, which is conducted at Laramie County Community College – how to estimate what speed a vehicle is going, when the radar will work the best and which state statues are the most commonly violated.
Troopers have to know all of the rules of the roads, including those about trailers hauling everything from sheds to flammable gas, allowable weights and limits, and what’s required for an oversized load. In these booming energy times, those are vitally important to his primary mission.
“We watch everything when we’re out,” he said. “Are the vehicle lights working? Are the plates displayed properly? What speed are they going and are they passing properly?”
The truck did, in fact, have a back license plate but it was caked with mud and nearly invisible. He got a warning for that, but was cited for no seatbelt – another safety first infraction that Starkey stresses at nearly every stop.
Troopers also have to be mindful of the radio and other calls that are coming in.
“We only have nine troopers for two-and-a-half counties,” he said. “I wish we could get more but it’s based on a state law and not on the need.”
A trooper will average 30,000 to 50,000 miles a year, and the vehicle’s tires will be changed three to four times.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the highway patrol,” he stressed. “We don’t have a quota, we’re not out to get them. We are human and when we stop someone, it’s not personal.”
Safety is the number one priority for any trooper and most would rather not write a citation but would rather educate drivers about safety.
“I once came across a vehicle stopped on a highway in the middle of the night,” he recalled. “When I stopped they explained that they were looking at the stars. They were on vacation here and where they come from there’s too much light.”
He emphasized that troopers are human, too.
“I also stopped a vehicle for speeding and the driver explained that he was leaving his mother-in-law’s and going home.”
The passenger – the man’s wife – was stone-faced, silent and apparently angry. Starkey gave him a verbal warning to slow down.
As the trooper goes along I-25, he quickly slows down in the left lane and goes back about half of a mile. A two-by-four has fallen out of a vehicle onto the interstate and broken into pieces. Dealing with road hazards is just another part of the job.
“It’s not about the tickets we write,” he said. “It’s about keeping everyone safe on the road. We want to make sure that everyone is buckled in and paying attention so everyone makes it home.”