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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Sergio Mendoza checks in with dispatch as he heads away from the ODOT yard in Central Point.

Angel on the asphalt: ODOT's Sergio Mendoza

Sergio Mendoza has a knack for running into motorists who are having a particularly bad day.

But Mendoza, an Oregon Department of Transportation traffic incident responder, is always ready with a smile and wide array of solutions for whatever troubles them.

Whether he’s offering an emergency gallon of gas, clearing road kill, removing political signs from the right-of-way or directing traffic during a wildfire or a crash on the Siskiyou pass, Mendoza is a guardian angel of sorts for motorists and emergency responders.

A former dispatcher, Mendoza is tasked with ensuring good traffic flow and safety for state-managed roads in the Rogue Valley, including Interstate 5, Highway 62 and Highway 238 under the state’s Traffic Incident Management program, a federally designed program to promote highway safety and better utilization of maintenance resources.

The Rogue Valley is second only to Portland in the number of highway incident calls, said ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming. But since Mendoza came on board in 2013, interruptions for maintenance workers are down 40 percent.

Driving between Rogue River and Ashland during a recent shift, he waited for signs of holiday chaos but was greeted with an unusually quiet afternoon.

“It’ll happen. It’s not a matter of if something happens, it’s a matter of when,” he noted.

Checking on a stranded motorist near Gold Hill — a pregnant woman waiting for a tow truck — Mendoza reported some downed deer and checked in on a vehicle pulled over for a phone call. Some days the tasks are more serious, such as traffic control during a massive wildfire south of Ashland this week, cutting a crushed vehicle free from a guardrail or responding to a scene with cargo spilled on the roadway.

“Probably some of the more labor-intensive calls we get are 18-wheelers or travel trailers when they crash. They’re not really made for structural integrity like they were in years past — they’re made to be lightweight — so as soon as they flop over they rip open and all kinds of things spill out on the road,” he said.

“Up on the Siskiyou mountain pass, traffic backs up really bad and really fast if there are any obstructions. If we have a cargo load on the roadway, we have to bring a front-end loader down to shove not only the 18-wheeler over to the side but then deal with the cargo.”

And by cargo, he points out, he’s seen it all. Pigs feet. Scrubbing bubbles. Bananas. Dog food. The list is noteworthy.

“When we had the load of scrubbing bubbles, we were trying to punch through to get the lanes open, but the bottles kept breaking open,” Mendoza said, noting that his truck is outfitted with everything from a flare distribution system and metal-cutting tools to roadside assistance supplies and tools for dealing with hazardous spills.

“It’s liquid soap, so of course it was super slick, until it dries and becomes really sticky, which is OK until the first rain. … We had to land a helicopter for an injured driver during the scrubbing-bubbles incident, so we had the front loader pushing through all this soap, and bottles ripping open, and people parking three wide and, of course, people in their fifth-wheels with slide outs out and camping chairs on the shoulder.”

Mendoza says most of his calls require little more than some human kindness.

“We’ll stop with folks, especially in summertime if there’s a disabled vehicle and it’s 100 degrees outside. I’ll carry cold water. Even if people have help coming, a tow-truck company could be half an hour out. It can be dangerous being not only in the heat but on the side of the road, so I’ll wait with people,” he said.

“There’s been times we’re out and there will be really young kids or infants or the elderly. We’ll set them inside the truck and wait for the tow company to get there. It doesn’t take much sometimes to make a scene a little bit safer.”

Leaming said Mendoza’s personality is a good fit for the nature of his job.

“I told him, ‘You go from crash scene to crash scene and offer to help.’ For many people, this is their worst day ever. Even if they’re not injured, they’re upset emotionally,” Leaming said. “From an agency standpoint, this program is a huge win for several reasons. It keeps traffic moving, but moreover it keeps people safe, and that includes the first responders — police, fire, tow — it gives them a buffer and offers a certainty of how do they proceed through a crash scene.”

Statistically, Leaming said, for every minute that traffic is allowed to back up, chances of a secondary crash continue to double.

Whether the calls are serious or simplistic in nature, Mendoza said he enjoys the variety of the job and the chance to offer a helping hand.

“Sometimes we hear from people that we’re doing the job of AAA or the tow trucks, but it’s actually a conjoined effort where all our agencies work together,” he said.

“Yeah, we could wait for someone else to take care of something, but if I’m right there and I can improve the safety and the traffic flow immediately, that’s what I’m here for.

“And as long as I’ve been doing this, I haven’t had too many people be unhappy to see me bring them some gas.”

ONLINE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIX_erSNdms

Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

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