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Holiday lights have different meaning for drunk drivers

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The holidays are a time for parties, dinners and gift exchanges with the office, with family and with dear friends. Tinsel hangs from carefully chosen Douglas firs, garland and red velvet ribbon drape mantles and banisters, and twinkling lights shine red and green in the amber beers, golden whiskeys and clear martinis that are tossed back with joyful aplomb.

This is the time of year when people drink in droves.

It’s also when the State Patrol’s drunk-driving task force is out in force to make sure they don’t drink and drive.

The State Patrol calls up a special emphasis team of between six and eight state troopers during the holidays to patrol the interstate highways and state routes looking for drivers without their lights on, drivers who fail to signal, and drivers who seem to be sailing home, drifting and weaving at 60 miles per hour down the freeway.

“I’m looking for lane travel,” said trooper Alicia Phillips, a member of the team who was out on patrol last Saturday night. “A lot of times, when people are drunk, they can’t multi-task.

Or they drive slow because they can’t keep it together at 60 miles per hour. Traffic usually has a certain flow. I watch the one that sticks out. It’s like the song, ‘One of these cars is doing their own thing.’”

Phillips and the other troopers on the team were chosen in recognition of their hard work and accomplishments on the patrol. As members of the task force, they don’t have to respond to other calls for service and they can decide where they want to patrol. Their whole job during the roughly seven weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years is finding drunk drivers and removing them from the road.

Phillips likes to work the Interstate 5 corridor from north Seattle to just south of the James Street exit. Most of the bars are in downtown Seattle, so she figures anyone heading somewhere else would have to get on Interstate 5. Other troopers like to work the state routes instead.

The most obvious sign of drunk driving is the lane travel that intoxicated drivers don’t even realize they’re doing. They have a tendency to hug one side of their lane and, despite their efforts to pull it back toward the center — usually demonstrated by a quick, messy jerk back to middle — soon the car drifts back toward the side, sometimes stepping over the lane markers.

Speed can be a good indicator, too, especially when someone speeds past a fully marked state patrol vehicle. “Usually when someone blows by me at 80, something’s going on there,” Phillips said. “One-car collisions are usually suspicious, too.”

Phillips said she’s pulled over a range of people of all ages, a diversity of nationalities and both genders. “I’ve had people my dad’s age and older, and people who are 16,” she said. “It’s the whole gamut. It’s funny. You can have one night that’s just tame and another night when it’s like, Is there a full moon?”

Some drivers haven’t been drinking; they’re just inattentive. They’re changing a cd, they spilled their coffee, they’re eating or talking on the cell phone. Phillips said she usually follows at a distance, watching to see how many times the driver drifts, sways, fails to signal, or slows to 45 or 50 miles per hour to take a curve in the freeway.

She stops a lot of people who are just driving poorly, but the truth is, the bad drivers — the people who are lost, those who are talking on the phone, those who just forgot to turn on their lights — look like the drunk drivers on the freeway.

“You hope you’re stopping the right people and getting them off the road, not the ones who are on their cell phone or eating. People do 10 million things when they drive,” Phillips said. “If I stopped every car that crossed the lane once, I’d be stopping a lot of cars.”

About 10:20 p.m. last Saturday, Phillips stopped a drifty Jeep V8 on the Evergreen Point bridge as thick fog rolled over Seattle. The driver said he’d had a beer at a party, so Phillips had him get out for field sobriety tests and gave him a portable breath test. He blew a .02, so she let him go. “He probably did have only one beer, and he probably just wasn’t paying attention,” she said.

The Jeep driver was so far under the limit, which is .08, he probably wasn’t affected by the alcohol he’d drunk, she said. But some people can be pretty close to the limit without being over and still be cited for driving under the influence. It’s a prong of the DUI law many people aren’t familiar with.

The primary prong is driving over the legal limit, and most people understand what that means. But there’s also a secondary prong, “affected by alcohol,” for those who weren’t quite at the legal limit, but were still impaired because of their gender, weight or body chemistry.

When Phillips approaches a driver, she asks what was going on. When they ask what she means, she explains they were swerving all over the road, or failed to use their blinkers when they drove across all four lanes, or they were driving without their headlights on.

As the driver explains, Phillips looks for bloodshot, watery eyes, flushed skin, boozy breath, slurred or fast speech or incoherent sentences, slow, labored movements and fumbling.

If the driver says he or she was at the symphony or at a ball game or out with friends, Phillips asks when the event was over. If it ended three hours ago, she’ll ask if they went out for drinks afterward, and how much they had. Usually, they say they had one beer. “If I believed everyone who said, ‘I only had a beer,’ I’d be a fool,” she said.

If the ethyl smell of alcohol is powerful when she gets to the door, she’ll do away with the formalities and cut to the chase, asking how much they had to drink and asking them to get out of the car for field sobriety tests.

As much as the field sobriety tests measure a person’s balance and ability to function, they also measure the ability to listen to and follow directions. People who are intoxicated usually can’t remember all of the directions to perform the test correctly. “They’ll raise their leg, but forget to count,” she said.

If they can’t perform the sobriety tests or they’re debilitated by the amount they’ve had to drink, she’ll pull out a portable breath test and have them blow. If they’re over .08, she handcuffs them, puts them in the back of her patrol car and calls for a tow. State law requires the vehicles of drunk drivers be impounded.

On a given night, Phillips might stop eight or 10 drivers and arrest between two and four for drunk driving. Early last Sunday morning, the DUI team had brought in five drunk drivers for processing at Bellevue headquarters.

In 2003, there were 21 drunk or drug-related driving fatalities in King County, according to state patrol statistics. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 this year, there have been 22 DUI fatalities in King County.

So far this year, troopers in King County have arrested 3,894 drunk or high drivers — they generally arrest 20 percent of the year’s total in November and December. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 20 this year, troopers arrested 702 drunk or high drivers. From Dec. 1-20, they arrested 273, and from Dec. 17-19, they arrested 63.

While they work they do is important, it can be thankless and a little overwhelming.

“It’s not a very glamorous job. Most people I pull over are angry,” Phillips said. “I just think to myself as I’m being yelled at, or told to go get real criminals, that drunk drivers kill more people than assault with a deadly weapon.

“There’s so much awareness now, I’m amazed how much it still happens,” she added, referring to the Drive Hammered, Get Nailed and other anti-drunk driving campaigns.

She said the holidays can be tough for people not used to drinking alcohol because there are so many holiday get-togethers where spirits flow freely as part of the celebratory air. People forget their limits and find themselves tipsy and out of luck when the party’s over and it’s time to go home. “There are habitual offenders, but there’s also people who don’t plan,” she said. “They’re 30 miles from home, they’re not going to take a taxi. So they drive.”

While some people get behind the wheel slightly in their cups and mostly recovered, others have had so much to drink they can barely keep their eyes open. They sway on their feet and they can’t follow directions. They vomit in the patrol cars or in the breath test room at headquarters. They pass out.

About 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Phillips pulled over a Nissan Pathfinder that was drifting within the lane. She contacted the driver and had him get out of the truck for field sobriety tests. He swayed on his feet, his eyes were droopy, and he kept sluggishly putting his hands in his pockets, despite Phillips’s repeated commands to keep his hands out of his pockets.

Because he couldn’t follow the directions, Phillips gave up on the field sobriety tests and conducted a breath test. He blew a .181, more than twice the legal limit. A half-empty bottle of Corona set next to him on the console, and there was more in the back with his passengers.

Phillips cuffed him and helped him stagger into the back seat of her patrol car. “He almost fell when I put him in the car,” she said. “He’s very, very drunk.”

As she filled out paperwork and waited for the tow truck, dispatchers broadcast three more possible drunk drivers on interstates 5 and 405.

“We stopped two cars, and both had been drinking. Isn’t that amazing?” Phillips said, as the man in the back seat slumped in a dazed stupor against the door. “Normally when you drive you don’t wonder, Are there any drunk people around me? But it’s so common.”

On the way to headquarters, Phillips passed a trooper pulled to the side of the road, lights flashing, administering a field sobriety test on a driver. Moments later, a car in front of her crossed the outside lane boundary, his wheels riding over the bumpy lane markers. She contemplated stopping him, too, but continued to headquarters to process the driver already in her car.

During the DUI patrols, the state patrol sets up a crew of troopers that remains at Bellevue headquarters to process the inebriated people the other troopers drop off. Processing the drivers — going through all the paperwork and administering the formal breath test — can take from half an hour to long than an hour, particularly if the person is very drunk. One man was so drunk Saturday night, he threw up on the floor next to the breath test machine.

The team at headquarters allows the troopers to get back on the road as soon as possible.

Phillips dropped off her arrestee and was driving on Interstate 90 about midnight when she pulled over a Honda Accord after the driver crossed into her lane, swerved back into his own and continued drifting. The teenaged driver said he’d just been distracted changing a cd, so Phillips let him go. Twenty minutes later, the car was stopped by another trooper going the other direction.

The driver insisted he wasn’t intoxicated, but the trooper said he smelled like pot. They didn’t have anything to submit as evidence in court, so they let him go.

At the same time, another trooper announced over the scanner he had two DUIs in custody. Somebody else called to report another possible DUI on I-5.

About 12:40 a.m., Phillips pulled over a Toyota Corolla for crossing all four lanes of I-5 without using a blinker. She had him get out of the car for some field sobriety tests, but he hadn’t been drinking so she let him go. Meanwhile, dispatch called out a possible DUI in Redmond and another on I-405, and a trooper announced he had another drunk driver in custody.

About 2:15 a.m., just after Seattle’s bars closed, Phillips pulled over a VW Jetta that swerved out of the lane. The trooper had the female driver perform field sobriety tests, for which the young woman took off her hot pink, patent leather stilettos to stand on one leg and to walk a straight line. As a trooper somewhere broadcast another drunk driver in custody, Phillips administered a portable breath test. The girl blew a .143. Phillips handcuffed her and put her in the back seat.

While Phillips waited for the tow to arrive, dispatch notified troopers of another possible drunk driver; moments later, a trooper pulled over a red Cadillac 50 feet in front of the Jetta and conducted field sobriety tests on the driver, whom he subsequently let go. About 20 minutes before 3 a.m., dispatch announced another drunk driver in custody.

Phillips said working on the DUI team can be overwhelming with the number of people out drinking and driving.

“It’s hard. There’s so many people to stop. Sometimes you just have to do one thing at a time,” she said. “Finally, you just have to say OK. This is what I have right now, this is what we’re going to deal with.”

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