Thefts represent new danger for drivers

Construction signs used to warn drivers now being targeted by thieves

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There's a new danger on our roadways that drivers are completely unaware of.  Construction signs used to warn motorists about lane closures and detours are being targeted by metal thieves. 

They're stealing the batteries that allow a message to be displayed to keep drivers from going the wrong way.  They are especially critical at night to warn drivers of what's ahead.  The companies that own these signs say it's only a matter of time before the theft leads to a death on the road.

Police say the lead in one battery that lights a construction sign can be sold for scrap for $10 to $15.  It takes eight batteries to light one sign, so investigators say thieves can pocket $80 to $120, while leaving the message boards in the dark.

It's a new and growing problem in our area.  Police reports reveal 70 batteries stolen in just 10 days, another 63 batteries in a different string of sign thefts and then 30 batteries in another local case.  ACME Barricades tells Channel 4 that around Florida, it's had as many as 500 batteries stolen from road signs in the last six months.

"This is when a theft can lead to not only a death, but multiple deaths," said Happy Alter, owner of Bob's Barricades.

Alter spoke with us from his office in South Florida.  He says it is just a matter of time when a theft to one of his signs, is going to end in tragedy on the highway.

"When you drive down the highway and see an arrow flashing to get over into the other lane…and if you don't get right over into it, if the battery is stolen from that sign, then a theft turns into a death," he warned.

"Drivers would get confused if the signs aren't there," said Michael Goldman with the Florida Department of Transportation. "And if they're not working, they will cause accidents."

Goldman says he's worried, too, to hear these signs are being sabotaged for their batteries.

"Particularly when drivers get used to certain behaviors over the years and they have to change their driving habits from one lane to another," Goldman added.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office says battery thefts have become such a problem, they're working undercover to catch thieves in the act.  One of the detectives we spoke with, who we aren't identifying since he's currently working undercover, has a warning for would-be crooks who may being thinking about committing the same crime.

"We're out there 24-7. You never know where we're at, you can just ask the people we've already arrested.  They are very surprised when we knock on the door and they have no idea how we got to them," the detective said.

JSO is one of just a handful of departments around the state that has a Metal Task Force, with officers who are specifically assigned to investigate scrap metal thefts.   They are doing all sorts of clever things to catch battery thieves.

The reason batteries are suddenly being stolen in large quantities is because crooks are stealing what they can sell.  Batteries are not regulated by the state.  Last July, a list of 20 items containing metal was added to the state law that regulates what recyclers are allowed to buy off the street.  From the 2012 law, here is the list of 20 regulated metals:

  1. A manhole cover.
  2. An electric light pole or other utility structure and its fixtures, wires, and hardware that are readily identifiable as connected to the utility structure.
  3. A guard rail.
  4. A street sign, traffic sign, or traffic signal and its fixtures and hardware.
  5. Communication, transmission, distribution, and service wire from a utility, including copper or aluminum bus bars, connectors, grounding plates, or grounding wire.
  6. A funeral marker or funeral vase.
  7. A historical marker.
  8. Railroad equipment, including, but not limited to, a tie plate, signal house, control box, switch plate, E clip, or rail tie junction.
  9. Any metal item that is observably marked upon reasonable inspection with any form of the name, initials, or logo of a governmental entity, utility company, cemetery, or railroad.
  10. A copper, aluminum, or aluminum-copper condensing or evaporator coil, including its tubing or rods, from an air-conditioning or heating unit, excluding coils from window air-conditioning or heating units and motor vehicle air-conditioning or heating units.
  11. An aluminum or stainless steel container or bottle designed to hold propane for fueling forklifts.
  12. A stainless steel beer keg.
  13. A catalytic converter or any nonferrous part of a catalytic converter unless purchased as part of a motor vehicle.
  14. Metallic wire that has been burned in whole or in part to remove insulation.
  15. A brass or bronze commercial valve or fitting, referred to as a "fire department connection and control valve" or an "FDC valve," that is commonly used on structures for access to water for the purpose of extinguishing fires.
  16. A brass or bronze commercial potable water backflow preventer valve that is commonly used to prevent backflow of potable water from commercial structures into municipal domestic water service systems.
  17. A shopping cart.
  18. A brass water meter.
  19. A storm grate.
  20. A brass sprinkler head used in commercial agriculture.

Items from the above list used to get stolen all the time.  But since they were added in July, the National Recyclers Association tells us thefts of these items have dropped 30 to 47 percent.  So, the law is definitely helping.  Channel 4 was told that while this law was being drafted, some wanted to add batteries to the list.  But at the time, batteries weren't being stolen.

All batteries are a target, including the batteries in our personal vehicles.  But for thieves, the batteries powering construction signs are easier targets.  They can get them quickly, often times without being noticed. 

The owner of Bob's Barricades, tells us thieves will pretend to be construction workers, pull over on the side of the highway and break into the signs without any drivers giving them a second glance.  He says they often work in teams, using two way radios to alert the team stealing the batteries when a Florida Highway Patrol trooper is approaching.  A crime that can happen in broad daylight, which is why local police encourage you to always report anything that looks out of the ordinary when it comes to the large message board signs along our roadways.

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