TAMPA — Victor Prout's eyes dart back and forth as he monitors the 60 video screens on the wall before him.
He's looking for trouble.
Will he find it in the stream of cars ambling over the Sunshine Skyway bridge? Or the semitrailer truck exiting Interstate 275 in Tampa or on a dark two-lane road in Polk County?
From his unlikely post inside a plain brick building in north Tampa, Prout's job is to make life more manageable for tens of thousands of motorists who daily navigate the area's tangle of interstate roadways. It's an odd sort of voyeurism, watching people run out of gas, rear-end each other or cause backups for miles.
"It'll blow your mind how many incidents we see on a daily basis," says Prout, 57.
What's more, transportation officials say, it's helping. Three years after tiny cameras were installed along the interstates, the $9 million traffic monitoring facility is changing the behavior of Tampa Bay drivers.
By updating electronic warnings along the interstates, the center is saving motorists' time, saving the cost of building more roads and giving drivers a choice, say Florida Department of Transportation officials.
"I love it," says Prout. "It's so interesting."
It also can evoke a sense of helplessness.
• • •
It's the middle of the night. You're driving a desolate stretch of Interstate 4. Your tire blows. You skid off the road. You don't know whom to call.
Somebody is watching.
"We're like, 'We've got you, little guy,' " Prout said. "We've got you."
Prout and about a dozen other regional operators scrutinize cameras around the clock, covering 140 miles of interstate from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to Polk and Pasco counties.
They see it all from the SunGuide Center, a Florida Department of Transportation facility near Busch Gardens.
At any given time, two or three operators monitor the constant procession of images, sent in by 130 cameras. Working eight-hour shifts, the operators have handled more than 110,000 calls of distress since the facility opened in July 2007.
They notify the Florida Highway Patrol, which has its own viewing facility one room over, and speak with road rangers in the field. They also update the electronic marquees along interstates. Still images are updated periodically online at fl511.com.
Safety and efficiency is the primary focus, though operators also see people jump off the Skyway, motorcyclists thrown and accidents involving children.
"It's a strange feeling to know you're watching someone die on the road," Prout said. "And their family doesn't even know yet."
• • •
Four people were killed and 38 injured two years ago when dense fog mixed with wildfire smoke, causing a 70-car pileup along I-4 in Polk County.
At the time, the SunGuide Center had no cameras on that stretch of road. But on radios, operators could hear road rangers at the scene. They could also hear wails and screams, the metal crunch of more cars hitting the pileup and the terrifying confusion of the rangers who could feel fire but couldn't see it.
"It was intense," said traffic center manager Dave Howell. "You want to help these people, but you can't."
Because of the thickness of the fog and smoke, cameras may have been of little use. But electronic signs a safe distance away could have warned people of the upcoming chaos, he says.
Lacking studies or statistics to support the traffic center's value, SunGuide operations manager Terry Hensley still thinks it is having a positive impact.
For one thing, he said, motorists' expectations are changing.
Drivers call the 511 hotline to complain when they didn't get fair warnings about a crash or a traffic jam. They complain when they get warnings but then the traffic jam didn't exist. And they complain when the delay times on the electronic signs are overstated or understated.
"Anecdotally," Hensley said, "that probably means the cameras are useful."
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.