DUI watch: Cleaning up the streets

Extra patrols watch for intoxicated drivers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, intent on saving lives

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance



Did you know?

• Troopers with Washington State Patrol arrested 161 drivers around the state suspected of being impaired by drugs or alcohol over the Christmas weekend. During the same weekend in 2010, officers arrested 194.

• Officers arrested 226 Clark County motorists on suspicion of DUI in last year’s winter campaign, Nov. 25 through Jan. 2.

• In the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year’s campaign of 2009, officers made 272 DUI arrests in Clark County.

It was just before 11 p.m. A green sedan swerved left, nearly hitting a jersey barrier on state Highway 500 near St. Johns Boulevard. Its driver quickly corrected, lurching to the right to avoid the concrete slab. A few seconds later, the car floated into part of another lane. That’s when Trooper Ben Taylor sprang into action.

The 11-year veteran with Washington State Patrol flipped a switch, activating the lights in his undercover car. Red and blue lights pierced the black, clear night. The green sedan pulled over to the right shoulder. Taylor suspected it might be his first DUI of the night.

He was right.

Taylor was one of dozens of Clark County law enforcement personnel to take to the streets on a recent Friday evening to keep an eye out for intoxicated drivers. It’s an annual tradition for officers trying to curb intoxicated driving between Thanksgiving and the New Year’s Day.

“That’s our goal,” Taylor said. “We want to be Target Zero.”

Target Zero is a campaign trying to reduce the number of serious injuries and fatalities related to traffic accidents to zero by 2030, said Marion Swendsen, Clark County Target Zero manager with the sheriff’s office. So far in 2011 there have been eight traffic-

related fatalities in Clark County, five of them related to impaired drivers, she said.

Taylor said that if the green sedan had hit that jersey barrier, the car probably would have flipped.

“That’s why the state is so adamant,” he said. “We have to sweep those guys off the freeways.”

Taylor typically keeps an eye out for aggressive driving and repeat violations. With each violation Taylor notices, the likelihood the driver is intoxicated increases, he said.

The difference between someone who is driving under the influence and someone who isn’t “is like night and day,” Taylor said.

A lot of times, finding those drivers just boils down to being in the right place at the right time.

That’s exactly what happened with that green sedan.

After speaking with the woman who’d been driving the car, Taylor decided to conduct field sobriety tests. Those tests included seeing how well she could track a slow-moving penlight with her eyes, walk in a straight line with her feet heel to toe, and balance on one leg with her arms at her side.

The tests are designed to test people’s ability to do multiple things at the same time.

“They’re not intended to trick people or be difficult,” said Trooper Ryan Tanner, a state patrol spokesman. When you’re driving, “you have to be able to check your mirrors, adjust your speed,” and keep an eye on the road.

The woman had problems with the tests and was put in the back of a patrol car while another trooper arrived to drive her passenger home. After the green sedan was towed, the woman was taken to the Mobile Impaired Driving Unit — a modified RV with breath alcohol testing machines, two holding cells and computer work stations — where other troopers continued to process the DUI paperwork. Taylor left to go back on the road.

He said troopers will typically pull over two or three intoxicated drivers per night between Thursday and Saturday on the DUI patrol. That night he got two drivers for DUI.

There were 12 other officers working the emphasis Friday Dec. 9 in Clark County. Together, they pulled over 11 intoxicated drivers, said local Target Zero manager Swendsen.

“It’s really kind of mind-blowing when you think, wow, that’s just one night that we did this,” she said.

Money for overtime shifts comes from a federal grant and is allocated by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Officers arrested 226 Clark County motorists on suspicion of DUI during last year’s winter campaign, which ran from Nov. 25 through Jan 2. In the 2009 campaign, officers made 272 DUI arrests in Clark County.

Swendsen said the program isn’t meant to catch drivers off-guard. It’s to encourage people who drink to make alternative plans to get home.

“We want them to plan ahead,” she said. “If you’re going to go out drinking, that’s wonderful. Just plan ahead.”

Local law enforcement personnel working overtime shifts to catch drunken drivers will hit the road again on Friday and Saturday, Swendsen said.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://twitter.com/col_cops;paul.suarez@columbian.com.