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.

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