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Profile: Richard L. Wheeler

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Profile: Richard L. Wheeler

Richard Wheeler

Richard L. Wheeler pictured here with Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos at the Turnpike Operations Center at Pompano Plaza for a "town hall" meeting.

Company: Florida’s Turnpike Services, LLC
Department: Safety Patrol
Position/Title: President

Does your professional experience influence your personal choices like the type of vehicle you drive? How?
My involvement in the Safety Patrol has made me more aware of two things. First, I have become more dedicated to checking maintenance issues such as checking air pressure, oil, etc. before a trip – we see too many preventable breakdowns along our highways. Second, I have become a more conservative driver, slowing my speed and especially watching for vehicles along the road – and moving over as often as possible.

Personal Vehicle Make and Model:
As for my personal vehicle – has been a Dodge Ram pick-up for the past ten years – hasn’t let me down yet – watch for the Dodge Trucks coming to our fleet soon.

How did you become involved with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise?
The company that I now own with a partner hired me as a GM and part of my responsibility was the fuel and towing operation at the Fort Drum Service Plaza on Florida’s Turnpike. Five years later we bid for the  seven other plazas’ fuel and towing and were successful, making the Turnpike operation the primary focus of the company. Five years into that contract we worked with FTE to launch the service patrol – three trucks to pick up dangerous debris on the highway. The fleet has developed to about twenty pick ups and tow trucks.

What other jobs have you held?
I worked previously with another fuel distributor and a mobile refueler, but I started my business career with Enterprise Leasing right out of college.

What factors largely influence the effectiveness of the State Farm Safety Patrol in Florida?
It starts with a good working relationship among all parties. The Turnpike, State Farm and our firm had a good understanding and agreement on what we were trying to accomplish for each – safety first, but a good reputation and high standards of customer service. This common ground was then used to train our operators in the details – using actual examples and potential customer questions.

How do changes in the economy, gas prices, etc. affect the patrol? It’s been tough for all of us starting with the spike in fuel prices, which many operators and government folks had not anticipated. Since fuel is one of our top expenses, the drastic changes we saw eliminated all profits unless a fuel offset or negotiated rate system was available. The economy and the budget impact which resulted in service hour cuts was another unforeseen impact. Who would have guessed that we would see government contracts shrink? That made for some lean years and unfortunately along with the high gas prices left some negative feelings concerning Safety Service Patrol contractors. Hopefully, the government managers will understand and adjust the contracts so that they have some ability to adjust or mitigate for this type of downturn.

What do you wish others would, but don’t seem to, understand about highway safety?
It only takes a second for bad things to happen – that second to look down at a text message, that reaching for a coffee, that driving next to another driver on a highway, that drift into the emergency lane – one second or less and there can be a catastrophic event – pay attention, focus and slow down for extra reaction time.

Who would be an ideal candidate to drive and operate a State Farm Safety Patrol vehicle?
The first thing we look for is personality – a serious individual but with the ability to communicate easily. Quick reactions towards solutions – but not quick reactions to anger or frustration. Safety Patrol Operators are the voice of reason, the white knight and an example of professionalism.

Fill in the blank: Motorists everywhere should carry Wow! – the list is long…..a cell phone and contact list, an early warning device flashing light or reflector, flash light, spare tire and jack/wrench in their vehicle at all times.

What would you like other states to know about Florida’s Turnpike’s Safety Patrol? It works and saves lives. I could add a dozen other comments but they all pale in comparison to our primary goal.

What would you like to know about other states’ safety patrols? I would like to hear about changes – major and minor that other programs have made – we have gained a lot by watching the other programs around the state – vehicle type, different beds and lights, uniforms. We all work in the same environment so we should be able to learn from each others play books.

Hometown: Waukegan, Illinois, but I really grew up in Mulberry, Florida.

Favorite Bumper Sticker: For general publication let’s just stick with my “Go Seminoles” one.

Pets: I have a variety. They all are adopted – a cat and a gecko from one son, a tarantula from another son, birds from everyone in the neighborhood – everyone loses interest and they end up at my house (due to my wife….).

Hobbies: I love to fish – offshore for Dolphin, Wahoo, King. I have hiked a few significant parts of the Appalachian Trail and I have a few cows on a farm in Polk County Florida.

Additional Comments: I would like to encourage the traffic management managers in all of the DOT entities to continue the development of the safety patrol programs and incident response teams – the economy slowed this down, but the need is still there and very worthwhile.

Back to Safe Highway Matters: Winter 2010

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