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ST. LOUIS -- If better fuel efficiency in a world of $4-a-gallon hasn't motivated drivers to slow down, maybe the sudden appearance of a motorcycle bedecked with flashing lights and a wailing siren will do the trick.
For the first time since 1996, the Missouri State Highway Patrol is roaming state highways on two wheels. Motorcycle troopers focusing on high-traffic areas and construction zones in metropolitan regions have simple goals: to reduce motorists' speed and prevent fatalities.
With gas prices soaring and traffic arteries often clogged, the patrol decided to bring back motorcycles for their stealth, maneuverability and fuel economy.
The patrol bought eight police-package 2008 Harley-Davidson FLHTP Electra Glides at $14,452 each, and launched the patrols in May as a pilot program, spokesman Capt. Tim Hull said.
"They're working out quite well," Hull said.
The bikes are the same as those used by the Illinois State Police, which has about 40 officers in its motorcycle enforcement bureau, created in May 2006. St. Louis city police also have 12 motorcycle officers who focus on traffic enforcement but also deploy for special events, VIP escorts and ballgames.
The Illinois State Police was formed in 1922 as an all-motorcycle unit before cars were added in 1925. In Missouri, a third of the highway patrol fleet was motorcycles at its creation in 1931, and the bikes were used for patrols and special operations until phased out in 1996 as impractical.
Three motorcycle officers are now assigned to Missouri's Troop C, based in Town and Country, which includes the St. Louis area. Each was required to attend a two-week training course before receiving clearance to ride.
The Harleys get about 60 miles per gallon, Hull said, compared with about 16 for the standard squad car, the Ford Crown Victoria.
Motorcycles are less noticeable to speeders and more maneuverable in construction zones, traffic congestion and jams near crashes.
The drawbacks: icy weather keeps the motorcycles in the garage, officer safety risks are higher and transporting others is not feasible.
Hull said the patrol hopes the presence of troopers on motorcycles will also promote bike safety and create better awareness for motorcycles among other motorists. The patrol will decide whether to keep or expand the fleet after analyzing this year's experience.
If the Illinois experience is any indication, expect the motorcycles to stick around.
After rolling out a pilot program in the early 1990s, the state police decided to form a specialty motorcycle unit in 2006 to focus on the "Fatal Five" - driving under the influence, speeding, not using seat belts, improper lane use and following too closely - at interstate hot spots and high-crash areas.
Motorcycle officers are not assigned to a particular region, but roam where needed most, which includes the Metro East.
State police attribute Illinois' drop in traffic fatalities over the past two years in part to the motorcycle patrols. The state has 114 fewer traffic deaths than at this time a year ago. Motorcycle officers have already written more than 18,000 citations and given out about 4,700 warnings this year.
"I couldn't be more pleased with where we're at right now," said Capt. Scott Abbott, the Illinois motorcycle bureau chief. "There's no doubt in my mind that any agency, whether it's state or local, is going to have great success with a motorcycle unit if it's implemented correctly."