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`Protector’ keeps roads safer for Hispanics

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Spotting a passing pickup that's riding low, California Highway Patrol officer Felipe Martinez flicks on his lights, pops a U-turn and pulls over the truck.

He isn't surprised to find four men sitting in the back of the truck. They're taken aback, though, at what comes next. Instead of a citation, Martinez gives the driver a lecture about packing vehicles too full.Martinez, who told the driver to drop the workers at an intersection, was following the patrol's "El Protector" program, aimed at educating Hispanic farm workers about the dangers of overloading cars and unsafe driving.

"You hear the same excuses: `I'm just helping these guys out. They don't have a car so I'm taking them,' " said Martinez of his work looking for potential driving disasters.

California set up its program a decade ago to combat a grim reality: Hispanic workers were dying in disproportionate numbers in car crashes. Ten years later, the accident rate involving drivers with Hispanic surnames has dropped by almost half.

Similar programs have since been undertaken in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin and the city of Chicago.

California launched its patrols last summer. Martinez and five other "Sentinels" look for vehicles that appear to be transporting farm workers illegally, such as carrying too many people or having too few seat belts. The Sentinels speak English and Spanish.

While critics have complained that the program singles out Hispanics and could encourage negative stereotypes, boosters say the program is a success - and the numbers aren't so grim now.

In 1988, when 25 percent of California's population was Hispanic, the rate of deadly car crashes involving people with Hispanic surnames was about 65 percent, said Rich Fuentes, El Protector coordinator of the CHP Central Division.

Today, the accident rate involving drivers with Hispanic surnames in the nation's most populous state has dropped to 33 percent. Hispanics make up 28 percent of the population.

El Protector - a tall, mustachioed, dark-haired officer wearing sunglasses - shows up at community functions to talk about the rules of the road. The CHP also has leaflets, radio and TV spots and single episodes of safety-minded soap operas.

The targets are easy to spot.

When the sun tips over to the west during sweltering summer days, traffic picks up on Highway 145, a two-lane road that cuts through the San Joaquin Valley. By 3 p.m., older-model vans, pickups and buses begin trickling north through green vineyards, and officers often find the vehicles brimming with sun-weary farm workers.

Venancio Gaona, vice chairman of a nonprofit Hispanic community service organization, has complained that the program targets Hispanics. He said their accident rate could be higher because of the conditions they drive in.

"You have workers who drive every day to work on rural roads that are perhaps not lighted, that do not necessarily have traffic signals," he said.

But Sgt. Ted Eichman, an El Protector founder, said the mortality rate "wasn't so much a stereotype, it was a fact."