WSP troopers look for drunken drivers from the air

The Washington State Patrol is taking flight to stop impaired drivers.

Through July 13, aircraft are patrolling highways in Snohomish County to remove drunken drivers from the road.

The State Patrol’s use of fixed-wing aircraft to spot impaired driving, or to verify reports from other drivers on the road, is somewhat unique. Two planes are equipped with a Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) camera.

“It helps out a lot,” Trooper Paul Speckmaier said.

While on DUI patrol, the Cessna 206s can receive calls from any 911 dispatcher. The pilots estimate that a third of all calls to 911 reporting DUIs on the road are accurate in their assessment.

“We get calls from everyone,” said Speckmaier, who works as a pilot or spotter. “It shows how in-demand the program is.”

When someone reports erratic driving, or the plane’s crew spots a possible drunken driver, the FLIR technology is used to view and record the vehicle’s behavior, including speed. Troopers in the plane then coordinate with patrol cars to intercept the suspect vehicle.

On Wednesday night, an aircraft was able to help remove three impaired drivers from the road — one spotted independently from the air, and two reported by callers.

According to Noll, when a patrol car arrives on the scene to stop the vehicle, the plane circles to ensure the trooper is safe.

“The aircraft is a force-multiplier,” said Francis. “They can cover more area than our troops on the ground, and they coordinate with units on the ground to work more effectively and safely.”

The aviation section of WSP is made up of seven aircraft. Besides the FLIR-equipped Cessna 206 planes, there are two Beechcraft King Airs and three Cessna 182s. The FLIR cameras, attached to the left wings of the Cessna 206s, cost around $400,000 each.

The planes not only help take impaired drivers off the road, they help with searches and rescues. WSP aircraft conducted surveillance after the Oso mudslide, for example.

Why not helicopters? Planes have proved to be more fuel-efficient. A plane needs fuel about every four hours, State Patrol pilots say, while a helicopter can only fly an hour or so before it needs fuel.

Troopers who pilot WSP planes come from a variety of backgrounds. Speckmaier flew in the army before joining the Washington State Patrol, while Trooper Chris Noll was trained as a commercial pilot.

Last year on July 4, troopers in Snohomish County arrested 18 impaired drivers.

According to Trooper Mark Francis, this year’s summer holiday period is primed for more. The holiday falls on a Friday, making for a long weekend, and the weather is expected to be warm.

Besides patrolling from the air, the Washington State Patrol plans to have extra troopers on duty on Snohomish County highways through July 13.

Brenna Holland: bholland@heraldnet.com.

More in Local News

Families begin relocating from public housing complex

Baker Heights is in need of repairs deemed to costly to make, and will be demolished and replaced.

Trail work by juvenile offenders builds resumes, confidence

Kayak Point trails were built out this year by groups from Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

Distress beacon leads rescuers to Pacific Crest Trail hikers

Two men in their 20s had encountered snow and waited two nights for a helicopter rescue.

Rules of the road for ‘extra-fast pedestrians’ — skateboarders

State traffic law defines them as pedestrians, and yet they are often in the middle of the street.

Volunteers clean up homeless camp infested with garbage

The organization’s founder used to live and do drugs in the same woods.

Everett mayoral campaign is one of the priciest ever

Many campaign donors are giving to both Cassie Franklin and Judy Tuohy.

City of Everett to give $400K to a nonprofit housing project

The city expects to enter a contract with HopeWorks, an affiliate of Housing Hope.

Strong clues led police to arrest 2 in Everett killing

Witnesses claimed they overheard the suspects talking about the incident, police said.

Herald photos of the week

A weekly collection of The Herald’s best images by staff photographers and… Continue reading

Most Read