On a rainy, hazy morning, Officer Steve Hammer sped down the shoulder on I-285, sirens on his bright yellow truck blaring, making his way to an accident scene. On arrival, he jumped out of the truck to stop traffic and help the damaged cars move to safety.

Hammer is one of two Sandy Springs Police officers who spend their days in yellow, heavy-duty pickup trucks clearing accidents and helping drivers with flat tires, jumping batteries and refilling gas for Sandy Springs’ Traffic Response Vehicles program.

Officer Hammer replaces a flat tire for a driver on I-285. (Evelyn Andrews)

The program started in 2015, and has since worked on thousands of calls and driven hundreds of thousands of miles helping drivers and clearing accidents. It is similar to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s “HERO,” or Highway Emergency Response Operator, rescue truck program. The GDOT version only operates on state routes, including interstates and major local roads like Roswell Road.

The Sandy Springs version is intended to complement the HERO program and can patrol on local city roads. Officer Steve Hammer, who drives one of the trucks, prefers to stay on interstates because assistance has “more of an impact,” he said.

“Just one accident can impact traffic for miles,” he said.

Unlike the HERO trucks, the Sandy Springs drivers are sworn police officers capable of writing tickets and making arrests. The state program is partly funded through a State Farm sponsorship, but the Sandy Springs operation is entirely city-funded.

Officer Hammer explains the equipment on the city’s “Traffic Response Vehicles.” (Evelyn Andrews)

The two trucks are operated by Hammer and Officer Kevin Smith, who is part-time. One Citizens on Patrol volunteer rides along in the passenger seat.

The Traffic Response Vehicles show up for emergency calls, but the officers also stop to help people in need if they spot them along the roadside.

A recent ride-along with Hammer started with assistance for a motorist the officer saw attempting to change a flat tire in the rain on a cold morning on I-285. Hammer replaced the tire in a few minutes. The driver said he was surprised to get such unsolicited help from a police officer.

Later, Hammer walked into lanes on the interstate to completely stop traffic for a few moments as cars involved in an accident crossed over from the left shoulder into a safer spot on the right.

Before the morning was over, Hammer would assist with another accident, tag abandoned cars and help re-route traffic around an overturned car.
Each vehicle is equipped with tow chains, traffic cones, water, crime scene tape, gas cans, basic repair tools, cables and a portable version of the “Jaws of Life,” a hydraulic device that can cut through cars to free trapped people. Both trucks have an electronic message sign to warn drivers of problems.

Between October 2017 and October 2018, the two officers distributed 317 gallons of gas, assisted with 639 accidents, replaced 339 flat tires and jumped the batteries of 129 cars, according to police data. They also arrested 33 people and issued 794 citations.

The trucks were repurposed from other police uses to avoid a large investment due to doubt the program would be successful, Hammer said.

Officer Hammer talks with other officers after helping divert traffic around an overturned car. (Evelyn Andrews)

“They didn’t know what they were getting into when they started this program,” he said. “A lot of people had their reservations about it, whether or not it could work.”

Now, the city is planning to replace his aging truck.

“It’s been a great truck, but I’m looking forward to the new one,” Hammer said.

A guard on the front of the truck is strong enough to push a vehicle, which Hammer has once done with a burning van. The truck is four-wheel drive and capable of towing a semi-truck, he said.

“It goes about two miles an hour, but it gets it out of the way,” he said.

Officer Hammer walks into lanes on I-285 to stop traffic so damaged vehicles can move across the interstate to a safer spot. (Evelyn Andrews)

Hammer joined the program when it started in 2015 after spending a few years in retirement following a 30-year career with the DeKalb County Police Department.

He attended trade school for mechanics and is able to fix some minor problems, but said they usually involve just duct taping something down or cooling down an engine. “This job is perfect for me,” he said.

For Hammer, a lot of the success depends on what officers are in the truck.

“You have to want to do something like this to really make it work,” he said. “I enjoy helping people and staying busy.”