Snagging `hummers' on I-89. `But officer . . . ' the guilty motorist mumbles lamely to Sgt. J. D. Dyer, `I was running out of gas, and had to reach the next station in a hurry'

WHEN it happens, it happens fast. A click of the radar control locks the speed in: 71 m.p.h. A quick check of oncoming traffic before darting onto the interstate, the telltale flickering blue light, and within seconds a chagrined motorist is split off from the stampede of travelers heading home from a Labor Day weekend in Vermont.

State trooper Jim (J. D.) Dyer angles his green and yellow cruiser to keep a portion of his hood and engine block between him and the occupants of the car he's pulled over -- a precaution for those rare instances when a speeder is armed.

He walks toward the station wagon -- a Volvo from Massachusetts -- peering at its plates and into its interior. The driver has some trouble finding his registration. That could result in a second citation, though Sgt. Dyer is inclined to be lenient on this point.

A little more than 10 minutes later, the paperwork is done, the man's license and registration have been checked through the state police computer, and he's found to be clean -- free of suspensions or outstanding warrants.

The chastised driver starts on his way south again, contemplating a $53 fine and feeling a lightness of head and foot. Vermont's formula is $3 for every mile per hour over 55 and a $5 surcharge that goes to aid victims of crime in the state.

The gentleman from Massachusetts, like the six other speeders that will be stopped by Dyer in the next couple of hours, pleaded he was traveling under 70 m.p.h. But the speed is right there on the radar screen if anyone cares to look, and trooper Dyer is glad to let motorists see for themselves if they care to (few do).

Nobody these days maintains he was observing the posted 55 m.p.h limit. That limit, imposed by federal dictum in the energy-pinched '70s to conserve gasoline, has been loudly criticized of late. In August President Reagan added his voice, suggesting that the time has come to let states once again ``regulate highways within their jurisdiction.''

Dyer, a man of medium height and solid build, has been doing his share of regulating behavior on highways for 16 years. He has seen most of what there is to see patrolling Interstate 89, one of Vermont's two major north-south throughways, and he's heard most of what drivers have to say to traffic cops.

``Oh yeah,'' he says, ``there are some you hear over and over again.'' Most notably: ``I really had to go to the bathroom and was trying for the next rest stop,'' and ``I was almost out of gas and had to reach the next exit.''

He's willing, however, to be persuaded by something that ``has a ring of truth to it.'' He's been known, he says, to turn a sympathetic ear toward someone who convincingly pleads he's on the way to see an ill relative, for instance.

In these matters and others, there's a substantial element of instinct in the work of a state trooper.

He has also, on occasion, decided to exercise leniency when a driver gets testy and there are young children in the car. ``I'll forgo a pinch to have the childrens' memory of that first contact with police be less negative,'' he says.

Vermont, though, was one of two states recently singled out by the Department of Transportation for non-enforcement of the nationwide 55 m.p.h. speed limit. It was penalized with a cut in its federal highways funds.

But the DOT action was long anticipated, says Gloria Danforth, a colleague of Sgt. Dyer's and a 10-year veteran of the force. She goes on to explain the rather involved ``formula'' by which the federal government calculates compliance with the 55 m.p.h limit.

It is based on tests run on stretches of rural highway where the speed limit is the federal maximum, Sgt. Danforth says. But in Vermont that means only two roads -- Interstates 89 and 91. Every other road in the state has a top posted speed of 50. So the sample is very small and the results are biased against the state, argue the troopers.

In any case, is it even feasible to enforce the 55 m.p.h limit when so many motorists are now exceeding it?

Dyer grins. ``I can feel my seat getting warm,'' he laughs. But his radar gun answers for him, as one car after another whirs by at speeds ranging from 59 to 69. ``We just don't have the manpower to do it,'' the trooper bluntly admits.

But ``we proved it could be done with that Interstate unit,'' he adds, referring to a special team called the ``I Patrol'' set up by Vermont a few years ago specifically to enforce the federally mandated speed limit. That unit was funded by Washington to the tune of $750,000 a year, a federal largess that has since disappeared, according to Dyer.

``I Patrol'' members would work in teams -- ``wolf packs'' -- to round up speeders. They'd also freely use such maneuvers as cutting across grass medians to swoop down on offenders, a technique now frowned on since more than one cruiser encountered rocks, drainage grates, and other obstacles hidden by the grass.

Today, with fewer troopers concentrating on Interstate patrols, the best you can do, especially on an unusually busy holiday evening, is ``show that blue light as often as possible,'' says Dyer. ``Anything 70 or over is fair game,'' he says.

``On a night like this a man could easily write 20 citations before the traffic slows down around 9,'' he guesses. It is, as one patrolling colleague radios, ``a fun day on the old slab.''

But even that pace of enforcement, duplicated by troopers in all parts of the state, will make only the barest dent in the numbers of drivers actually exceeding the limit, Dyer acknowledges.

Musing on the 55 m.p.h limit a little further, Dyer suggests that ``when there was a shortage of gas, people could understand why you were out there, but with the shift to front-wheel drive and better mileage, people are saying, `I've done my bit.' ''

Still, he adds, ``there's no doubt speed kills,'' and that the lower national speed limit has saved lives.

``Here comes a hummer,'' he suddenly interjects. ``77'' is clamped onto the red digital display atop the dashboard and the brief chase is on once again. This time it's a sedan from Connecticut. The driver speaks poor English, so Dyer ends up explaining the ticket and the various options -- appearing in court, mailing in the fine, etc. -- to the man's wife. A hefty $71 is assessed this time.

Like nearly everyone stopped tonight, this driver can't believe he was going over 65.

The ages of the motorists pulled over by Dyer contradict the notion that younger drivers are the worst speeders. This evening's violators range from their late 20's to their late 50's. But their license plates doconfirm the common wisdom that the bulk of this little state's speeders are imported, so to speak -- two each from Massachusetts and Connecticut, a Georgian, a New Yorker, and one from Quebec.

A substantial number of these out-of-state offenders never pay their fines. Vermont has a backlog of uncollected fines that is ``almost as large as what we get from the federal government in highway aid,'' says Dyer. But the fines stay on the books, and if those drivers are ever stopped again up here in the Green Mountains, you can be sure ``we'll lodge 'em'' in the correctional center, says the trooper.

Residents may not be so easy to nab: ``The in-staters know where we are -- right over that ridge.''

The only Vermonter apprehended on this late summer evening was a thoroughly shaken young man who had ``dusted'' a trooper some miles morth of here. That, in translation, means he had veered too close to an officer standing on the edge of the roadway talking to another motorist.

The driver, a teen-ager faced with a license revocation and, worse, a criminal charge of driving to endanger, admits to Dyer he had seen the officer, but denies purposefully coming near him.

When the trooper from up north arrives, Dyer gets out of his car to talk the situation over with him. Meanwhile, the youth in the Blazer (his father's car) is spending perhaps one of the most uncomfortable half-hours of his life. The two officers decide to let him off with a stern one-on-one lecture.

``When that trooper gets through with him he'll know he screwed up,'' Sgt. Dyer says when he's settled back into the cruiser. To a degree it's a matter of respecting authority, he says, but even more it's a matter of getting across ``your responsibility when you're on the road as a driver, no matter who's on the side of the road, a trooper or anyone else.''

So things come back to what Dyer sees as the heart of his work, on the Interstate or off -- communicating with people, ``letting them know what's happening.''

``Our integrity to the general population,'' he sums up, ``that's what we count on.''

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