Team notches 1,000 drunken-driving arrests in 1 year

MARYSVILLE — In the year since a special team of state troopers hit Snohomish County’s streets and freeways, they’ve arrested nearly 1,000 drunken drivers.

Experts say that means 1,000 possible crashes — maybe fatal crashes — were prevented.

“The more tickets we write the fewer collisions and deaths we have. It’s amazing,” said Shelly Baldwin, of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

The Night Emphasis Enforcement Team, a detachment of four specially trained Washington State Patrol troopers, has far exceeded objectives, said Kirk Rudeen, a State Patrol spokesman.

“We’ve taken a close look at the this unit and the success it’s had is really incredible,” he said. “The impact it has on public safety is tremendous. It makes the roadways safer.”

Since January, deadly alcohol-related crashes in Snohomish County are down more than 50 percent over the same time period in 2006, Baldwin said. Statewide, the number is down about 37 percent.

Drunken driving is a leading killer on the state’s roads. Roughly 40 percent of deadly collisions are blamed on alcohol or drugs.

In 2006, 633 people died on the state’s roads and 228 of those deaths involved a drunken driver, Baldwin said.

“It’s a huge problem that’s killing a lot of our citizens, injuring a lot of our citizens and has a huge cost to society,” Rudeen said.

Drunken driving this year in Snohomish, Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties has cost the public about $23.7 million including medical expenses, lost wages and insurance costs, he said. “That’s the societal costs.”

The nighttime detachment, which works primarily in Snohomish County, was modelled after a similar team started in 2003 in Spokane.

By adding more troopers on weekend nights, there’s a better chance that they’ll pull over drunken drivers, said Sgt. James Riley, who commands the team. Statistics show that Friday and Saturday nights are when the most alcohol-related crashes occur.

“We focus on everything that has to do with nighttime,” Riley said. “In turn, what happens with that, our primary job is DUI enforcement.”

Troopers spend most of their time where they’re most likely to catch drunken drivers: near bars on Highway 99 in the county’s south end, and on I-5, I-405 and U.S. 2, the county’s busiest roads. They look for people drifting over the center line, swerving through traffic, going too fast or too slow or forgetting to turn on headlights.

The troopers take their job — catching drunks — personally.

“These are people who have a passion for it. They’ve been to the fatal collisions. They’ve seen the damage that impaired drivers cause and they want to do everything they can to get the DUIs off the road,” Rudeen said.

In the coming year, the State Patrol hopes to add more troopers to the nighttime detachment in Snohomish County and may expand the program to other regions of the state, Riley said.

Having extra patrols on the streets at night helps make the roads less dangerous, said Karen Minahan, a Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokeswoman.

“We love it,” shes said. “I feel safer when there’s a lot more law enforcement officers on the roads. Maybe it triggers people to think: ‘If these people are going to be out there, I should drive a little bit safer.’”

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