Unmarked patrols snag dangerous drivers

By SAM SKOLNIK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

As traffic began to thicken one recent morning on Interstate 90, a red Dodge Caravan suddenly slashed left in front of another car. The driver had cut it close and hadn't signaled his lane change. The Caravan then sped up and cut left again into the HOV lane.

The car he cut off, a nondescript Chevy Impala, zoomed in closely behind and began tracking him as he headed toward Seattle. State Trooper Luis Gonzalez waited patiently to find the right spot to pull over the Caravan before sounding the Impala's hidden siren.

Gonzalez slapped a $538 ticket on the man for negligent driving. It's his job to ferret out aggressive drivers from his unmarked sedan.

Drivers such as the 20-year-old behind the Caravan's wheel -- running late to pick up his mother -- regularly turn local highways into deathtraps, Gonzalez said.

"They could kill someone in a heartbeat," he said. "Could be your family, could be mine."

The Washington State Patrol is pulling over more aggressive drivers than ever these days using unmarked cars such as Gonzalez's. Troopers prowl local highways for hyper-fast lane changers, tailgaters, road-racers and others who are intentionally uncivil -- meaning dangerous -- on the road.

This year, through the end of October, the Patrol had either cited or warned 43,685 such drivers throughout the state; more than a quarter of those contacts came from the fleet of undercover patrol cars that make up the Patrol's Aggressive Driver Apprehension Team. That's almost 4,000 more stops than they made during the same time period in 2004.

The State Patrol began the aggressive driving team in 1998, with funding for new undercover cars provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The team started with eight cars statewide; the number has now swelled to 43.

In addition to the Impalas, Gonzalez said, the program includes Camaros, Volvos and Dodge Stratuses.

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On the outside, the cars are relatively inconspicuous. But they're equipped where it counts.

In addition to souped-up engines, the cars' interiors are a lot like those of regular patrol units, including accessible laptop computers, speed gauges, a shield between the front and back seats, and a loaded shotgun nestled between the driver and passenger seats. The headlights and rear brake lights turn into multicolored strobe flashers with the flick of a switch.

One year ago, the Patrol bolstered its efforts to counteract aggressive driving by launching a Web site where witnesses or victims of aggressive driving can report their concerns. About 1,200 reports have been filed since then.

Steve Routt of Arlington was one of those who reported being the victim of aggressive driving.

Routt was driving onto northbound Interstate 5 in Everett about two weeks ago when a black pickup truck tried to ram his car while getting on the freeway.

The pickup had tried to merge left from the right lane, forcing Routt "to slam on the brakes to keep from getting hit," At one point, the pickup driver made an obscene hand gesture, he wrote.

Routt has been commuting from Arlington to his job in Everett for 24 years. "It's progressively gotten worse," he said. "More and more people don't give themselves enough time to get where they want to go, so they act stupid."

According to State Patrol spokesman Greg Pressel, who oversees the Web site, if he sees multiple complaints made about a given patrol area, he'll refer the matter to the correct State Patrol district or to the relevant county or local police agency to make sure the area is beefed up.

In instances in which a license plate is noted and confirmed with a registration, the Patrol will mail a letter warning the driver that he or she has been spotted driving aggressively. A pamphlet with advice on how to drive more carefully is enclosed.

According to the federal highway traffic safety agency, aggressive driving played a role in about two-thirds of the 41,821 traffic fatalities nationwide in 2000.

In fact, according to a 1998 study by the American Automobile Association, one in four drivers admitted to driving aggressively at least occasionally, most commonly by speeding because they are running late.

"It's a huge concern," said State Patrol Chief John Batiste. "There are a lot more vehicles on the road now, and that creates stress."

The problem is more pronounced in King County, the most densely populated in the state. It is home to five of the 10 worst "hot spots" as the Patrol defines them -- areas where aggressive driving can be more the norm than an aberration.

Aggressive driving is defined as two moving violations that put life or property in danger, or a "single intentional violation that requires a defensive reaction of another driver," according to the Patrol.

The violations can include negligent driving, which brings with it a steep fine, or reckless driving, a criminal violation that can result in a night in jail, an even heftier fine, a revoked license, or possibly all three.

"It's just common sense," Trooper Gonzalez said. "People need to drive smart out there."

ON THE WEB

For information on aggressive driving, see the Washington State Patrol's Web site:

www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/roadrage.htm

To report incidents of aggressive driving, drivers can e-mail the State Patrol by going to: www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/agdrvng.htm