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Washington State Patrol Takes To The Air To Catch Drunk Drivers

KUOW | July 31, 2009 9:46 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:10 a.m. | Olympia, WA

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By Austin Jenkins

If you've ever called 911 to report a suspected drunk or reckless driver, you probably know the frustration.

Rarely are the police able to stop the driver before he turns off, or you do, or you lose him in traffic.

But now in Western Washington, 911 callers from the road are increasingly getting a call back - from a state trooper in a plane. Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins took to the air to see why.


On a warm summer evening, Smokey 3 – a Washington State Patrol plane - taxis for take-off at the Olympia airport. Within seconds the single engine Cessna is airborne and soon the chase in on.

 DUI Patrol
Trooper Jon Ames, Tactical Flight Officer, at work in the back of Smokey 3.

Paul Speckmaier: “Smokey 3, Seattle. The three motorcyclists are triple digits now.”

Smokey 3 pilot is Trooper Paul Speckmaier. He's tracking three motorcycle riders doing more than 100MPH on I-5 near Seattle.

Paul Speckmaier: “Smokey 3, Seattle. It looks like we also have a motor vehicle now that is triple digits with the motorcycles.”

Soon one motorcycle and one car are racing down the freeway – weaving in and out of traffic. Watching the action unfold from the back of the plane is Trooper Jon Ames.

Jon Ames: “Possibly two riders on the back of the motorcycle.”

Ames' job is to operate a gyro-stabilized video camera mounted on the side of the aircraft. It's called a Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR camera. Similar to ones used by the military, it has night-vision capabilities and can lock-in on a vehicle zipping down the freeway.

Jon Ames: “Got him in the camera and audio's rolling.”

The several hundred thousand dollar camera system – paid for by a Homeland Security Grant - also records the action – for use later in court.

As Smokey 3 tracks the reckless drivers from the air, dispatchers watch a live video feed from the plane and direct ground troopers to intercept the racing vehicles.

This is the Washington State Patrol's 2-year old DART program in action. DART stands for DUI Aerial Response Team.

Police have long used planes and helicopters to track speeders and fleeing bad guys. But the Washington State Patrol says it's the first in the nation to target drunk and reckless drivers with a plane.

Jon Ames: “We're able to cover a large area very quickly.”

Trooper Ames says the plane can get to the action faster than ground units and start recording what's happening. That's especially helpful when a motorist calls to report a drunk or dangerous driver - something that happens a lot.

In 2007, the State Patrol logged nearly 30,000 such calls in the Puget Sound region. The problem was a trooper was able to stop the erratic car only four percent of the time.

Now with the plane, the State Patrol claims it's stopping 25 percent of those drivers.

Back in his office in Olympia, Trooper Ames shows me a video of what happened after one recent 911 call.

Video: “Hi this is Trooper Ames with the State Patrol. Did you just call in an erratically driven vehicle?

Caller: “Yes sir.”

What you're hearing is Trooper Ames calling back a motorist who's seen a green pick-up truck weaving down the freeway. Soon Trooper Ames is tracking the pick-up with the FLIR camera.

Video: “And we've had him on the shoulder twice now.”

On the ground a trooper is trying to catch up to the truck. The crew in the plane guides him in.

Video: “He's probably eight cars in front of you, your lane.”

Soon the pickup is stopped. After a sobriety test the driver is handcuffed and taken to jail.

Trooper Ames says this is exactly how the DART program is supposed to work.

Jon Ames: “Everything's come together and we've gotten dangerous drivers off the road before they can hurt themselves or someone else.”

Back now to that motorcycle-car race on I-5, ground troops are closing in.

Paul Speckmaier: “Okay, Seattle the motorcycle is on the right side of the unit that's just pulling out.”

Within minutes, both the car and motorcycle are pulled over.

Paul Speckmaier: “548 has the motorcycle stopped. We're overhead.”

In the end both drivers go to jail. The Washington State Patrol is so pleased with the results that it's maintaining these flights even in the face of budget cuts to the aviation unit.

Currently the team flies four nights a week. If funding ever returns the agency hopes to eventually send the plane up every night of the week.

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