We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the members of the elite Highway Patrol Bureau, Officer John Hnat. The Highway Patrol Bureau (HPB) is one of the most visible and important bureau’s in the Suffolk County Police Department. With a wide variety of responsibilities, these are the brave officers we commonly see on our highways and major roadways. Their overarching mission is to improve roadway safety for all of us.

Before diving into all the work the Highway Patrol Bureau is responsible for, we first learned a bit about Officer Hnat and how he became a police officer. Growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Officer John Hnat started his career as a court officer in New York City. He took the Suffolk County police test in 1999 and began his training at the Suffolk County Police Academy in 2003. After graduation, Officer Hnat was assigned to the 6th precinct in Selden. In 2014 Officer Hnat transferred to the Highway Patrol Bureau.

“The roads are our precinct. When we are on highway patrol, we have the opportunity to prevent danger every day by enforcing safe and responsible driving. The highway patrol officers are the face of the department. Almost everyone drives and chances are, even if you haven’t received a summons, you have seen or been pulled over by a police officer with a warning.”

While Officer Hnat is humble, it’s clear that the job of every HPB officer is extremely dangerous as there is uncertainty with every traffic stop. An officer never knows if he or she is pulling over a hardened criminal or a late-for-work commuter. Simple accidents can sometimes turn into deadly situations and each shift brings new and unexpected challenges.

“We, the Highway Patrol Bureau, are the first officers to respond to 911 calls on Sunrise Highway and the Long Island Expressway. We respond immediately with the training and expertise to prevent and/or mitigate life-threatening situations.”

Officer Hnat looks forward to the new challenges each day or night brings, but is always grateful to return home safely to his wonderful wife, Eileen, and their three young children.

highwayAs the numbers demonstrate, the Highway Patrol Bureau is very busy keeping our roadways safe. In 2015, the HPB arrested 1,212 people, which included 882 arrests for driving while impaired (alcohol or drug impaired). They issued a total of 42,633 tickets: 12,188 speeding tickets; 2,214 cell phone tickets; and the remainder for a variety of other violations including unsafe lane changes, HOV violations, tailgating, and reckless driving.

“Irresponsible drivers, whether they be substance impaired, distracted, or aggressive in their driving put everyone on the road at risk. We work hard to remove those risks.”

Officer Hnat gave us an overview of the HPB sections. Each is highly specialized and requires specific training, which contributes to making Suffolk’s HPB officers amongst the best in the nation. Below are some of the specialty sections of HPB:

Suffolk Intensified Traffic Enforcement (SITE): SITE officers are focused on enforcing all moving violation laws and regulations in an effort to prevent accidents. They are trained to identify patterns of dangerous driving including aggressive and distracted driving. Officer Hnat explained the frustration of accidents that are completely preventable: “today too many people unnecessarily put their own and others lives in danger by texting, reading emails, and talking on the phone. Every one of our officers will agree that distracted driving is worse than ever and the consequences have resulted in many unnecessary fatalities.” A real reminder that driving and texting often has deadly consequences so simply put DON”T TEXT AND DRIVE.

motor carrier 1Speeding, tailgating, driving on shoulders and on the wrong side of the road to get through traffic are all dangerous and examples of “aggressive driving”. Aggressive driving is a major cause of accidents, injuries, and roadway deaths and it is too prevalent on Long Island’s clogged roads. SITE officers strictly enforce safe driving regulations and are working to shift the driving culture away from aggressive behavior. Traffic can be frustrating, but these officers remind us that traffic laws are in place to protect us, so if you drive aggressively, you can expect to get a ticket.

imagesR213F2HCSelective Alcohol Fatality Enforcement Team (SAFE-T). Alcohol and drug impaired drivers threaten the safety of everyone on the roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Department, two of every three people will be in some kind of accident in their lifetime because of a drunk driver. And every two-minutes someone is injured in an accident caused by drunk driving. For this reason, Suffolk has dedicated officers to this threat – they are the men and women of SAFE-T. They are trained to identify driving patterns of impaired drivers. They work with all the HPB officers to develop strategies to detect and apprehend impaired drivers, in addition to educating drivers about the dangers and consequences of drunk and impaired driving.

As part of their programs, SAFE-T officers set-up sobriety checkpoints, especially on holiday weekends when drinking is more prevalent. This past New Year’s they set one up at the Shoprite shopping center in Hauppauge. Of the 564 cars that went through the checkpoint, five people were arrested – quite possibly saving their lives and/or others driving that night.

Motorcycle Section: Motorcycle Officers have varied responsibilities in addition to patrol. They are trained in the radar and laser equipment used for speed enforcement and considered the experts on that equipment in the department. In fact, their expertise often lands them in court giving testimony to the accuracy of the equipment. As Officer Hnat explained, people will often plead “not guilty” to speeding tickets and blame “faulty equipment,” which is rarely a successful defense thanks to these officers. In addition, motorcycle officers provide police escorts for everything from visiting dignitaries to wide-load trucks and also perform surveys to assess the need for school crossing guards in each precinct.

Motor Carrier Safety Section (MCSS): This special section is focused exclusively on commercial vehicles (primarily trucks) on our roads. Commercial vehicles have very strict regulations because of the increased risks they can pose. These regulations include their weight, how many hours the driver can drive, what their cargo can contain, and the maintenance of the vehicle.

Officer Hnat stresses that the average person doesn’t realize the importance of this section of the police department. “They are responsible for conducting inspections of all commercial vehicles to be sure that they are safe and in compliance with federal, state and local laws.” As Officer Hnat explains, these officers protect us from threats we never think about on the road. They pay extra attention to trucking companies that transport hazardous materials and waste, and they spend time investigating suspected transportation of radioactive material.

Like the SAFE-T section that sets up sobriety checkpoints, MCSS will set-up truck checkpoints to ensure that all safety regulations are adhered to. At one recent checkpoint they inspected 12 trucks, issued 8 summonses, and placed 3 tankers and 1 driver out of service for extensive violations. As you can see, being proactive and reducing the risk for responsible drivers is the top priority for every section of the Highway Patrol Bureau.

As we wrapped up our interview with Officer Hnat he reminds us,

“each year there are too many injuries and deaths on our highways and roads in Suffolk County and we are working very hard to get that number down. We don’t like giving out tickets, but we’re trying to save lives, so please protect yourself and drive responsibility.”

The officers on the Highway Patrol Bureau including our own Officer John Hnat, encourage you to be a responsible driver – there are deadly consequences to speeding and aggressive, drunk or distracted driving — drive safe and stay safe in 2016.