HAMMOND | Sometimes Conor O'Brien can't tell if a person really needs help or is trying to scam him out of a gallon of free gasoline.
O'Brien is one of eight local Hoosier Helpers assigned to work 34 miles in Northwest Indiana. While the best part of his job is helping motorists in need, he's also responsible for keeping an eye out for people who may be trying to take advantage of the free gas program.
State officials said 4,134 free gallons of gas were given out across three districts covering 157 miles of Indiana expressways in the 2011 fiscal year.
During the 2011 fiscal year, local helpers gave away 1,449 gallons, or 35 percent of the state's total free gas, in Northwest Indiana.
Some people are savvy to the fact Illinois responders working the expressways charge $10 for each gallon of gas provided for motorists, according to Illinois Department of Transportation work leader Raz Berrios.
The Indiana program, which is heavily sponsored by State Farm Insurance, provides motorists with the help of the Indiana Department of Transportation workers for free. Sometimes people try to dupe the system after learning about the free program, officials said. If that's the case, helpers will offer to take the would-be scam artists to a gas station.
Supervisor Skip Claussen said his team has seen its share of shenanigans on the interstate — including people who push cars over the state line to get free gas.
“We've actually had somebody west of the state line going eastbound who told the (Illinois responder), 'I'll wait for the Hoosier Helpers,'" Claussen said.
The Hoosier Helpers Northwest Indiana district includes the Borman Expressway from Illinois to Interstate 90; Interstate 65 from U.S. 231 to U.S. 12/20; and Interstate 94 from I-90 to Ind. 249.
O'Brien said freeloaders aren't hard to come by on the stretch of the Borman he covers. He said he encountered one couple three times in one week driving the same car pulled over in the same stretch of the expressway.
Another helper reported seeing the same person in the same car twice in one day, Claussen said.
But giving out gas isn't the only thing helpers do on the road. O'Brien doesn't flinch as he changes flat tires on I-65 as semitrailers whiz past him.
Motorists with flat tires are what he comes across most often.
He also helps stranded motorists on the expressway and diagnoses whether a car needs a simple jump or something more.
Many motorists are surprised when a Hoosier Helper stops to help them for free.
“All we ask for is a comment card,” O'Brien said.
Indiana State Police officials are grateful for the efforts the helpers make every day.
When the helpers aren't on the road, it's the responsibility of Indiana State Police to help motorists who are stuck in dangerous areas of the expressway, ISP Sgt. Kim Riley said.
“That leaves us out there (so) we can do other things like patrolling, getting drunk drivers off the road and trying to slow down traffic,” he said.
Hoosier Helpers also help control traffic at crash sites, which is the most difficult part of the job, O'Brien said.
“A lot of it is like herding cattle,” he said. “Getting it set up is difficult, but once the cones are out, people need to follow them.”
Blinking arrows are lit up on the back of Hoosier Helper trucks, but oftentimes motorists whip around the workers.
O'Brien was nearly hit by a car that pulled around his truck as he cleared debris from the street after a semitrailer blew a tire.
It didn't faze him.
“Helping people is the best part of my job,” he said. “Sometimes it's dangerous and sometimes people don't follow the traffic signs, but I'm used to it and I'm safe out here. I'd rather be the one near the traffic instead of somebody who doesn't do this every day.”