Driver awareness can help protect highways from a huge problem
By Danielle Holstein
Redmond residents quickly noticed when Leary Way Northeast flickered into darkness. A well-traveled corridor, Leary requires light to ensure safe passage for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike. The cause? Copper wire theft. Even more unsettling, our maintenance crews installed the wiring following another theft just 24 hours earlier.
|A junction box where wiring was stolen and the cover was forcefully removed.|
Despite fluctuating copper prices, our roadways have experienced a steady increase of copper wire theft over the past four years. Copper wiring plays an important role on Washington highways: it powers overhead signs, street lights, and traffic cameras. All important stuff!
However, copper has historically been considered a lucrative material to steal and re-sell. Since mid-2015, we've replaced hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of copper in the Puget Sound region alone. Those are tax-payer dollars out of our maintenance budget that could go to repairing potholes, paving, cleaning trash, or other important work.
|Another junction box that has been tampered with and wire was stolen from.|
How do they do it?
Copper wiring on major corridors lives in protected concrete “junction” boxes, which sit either in highway barriers or in the ground. Wire thieves go to great lengths to break into junction boxes and steal the wiring inside. Often, thieves will don fake construction gear to mimic the attire of a WSDOT worker, or place yellow flashing lights on their trucks. Thieves regularly destroy the boxes in order to infiltrate.
Why is this important?
Copper theft is a wasteful drain on tax-payer dollars. Breaking into a single junction box can put us at a $4,000-15,000 loss, depending on the thickness of wire stolen and damage to the box. Often, thieves will target multiple boxes a night.
Wire theft also leads to unsafe traveling conditions. Without signals and lights, drivers can become confused or find it hard to see ahead of them. Without overhead signs to communicate about collisions ahead, drivers can’t effectively plan their routes.
|One of the WSDOT trucks we use for legitimate electrical maintenance.|
If you don’t see a WSDOT truck with logo on scene, please call 911.
With hundreds of cameras to monitor the highways and only so many eyes to do so, catching someone in the act of vandalism or theft is nearly impossible in the daylight, much less at night, when most theft occurs. We need your help. Here are some clues that might identify a thief:
- Look for the WSDOT logo – Thieves might be suited up in construction gear, but it’s unlikely their outfits or trucks will display our name or green logo.
- Is the crew working at night? – Our crews will never engage in electrical work in the dark. Because of the wiring’s high voltage, this sort of work is extremely dangerous in the dark.
- Watch for traffic control measures – Our crews will always have significant traffic control to alert drivers of maintenance work. Electrical repairs are never a single-truck job, and we use large, yellow vehicles. Our trucks have flashing signs and crews use a significant number of cones and barrels. Conversely, thieves will almost always have a single truck, and will try to appear as discreet as possible.
- Suspicious activity – Does something seem amiss, but you just can’t put your finger on it? Report suspicious activity just in case!
Sure, I’ll keep an eye out – but what is WSDOT doing?
While you’re helping us out, we’re trying to up our game, too. We continue to use stronger theft protection on our boxes but have to balance that with the need to keep them accessible to our maintenance crews. In some locations, we are replacing copper wiring with aluminum wiring, which is a much less lucrative find for thieves.
Combating wire theft is no easy task, but it’s a battle worth fighting. With your help, we can work to keep our equipment intact, our highways safe and important tax-payer dollars going towards needed repairs. Remember to call 911 to report suspicious activity!