Trooper unit focus is traffic safety

Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2010

As trooper Gordon Young passed Kenai Central High School on Friday evening, dispatch relayed a concerned citizen's call about three unattended children in Nikiski.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Gordon Young of the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol talks to a motorist during a traffic stop on the Sterling Highway last weekend. The patrol has been working on the Kenai Peninsula for nearly a year now.

Young had just come from Nikiski, where he pulled a young man over for speeding on the Kenai Spur Highway. He didn't write the driver a ticket.

"More than half -- probably three-quarters of the time -- there is a citation coming," Young, of the Kenai Peninsula's Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol unit, explained. "But sometimes it's best just to give them a reminder so they will watch what they are doing on the road."

When he heard the call about the kids, Young made a quick U-turn into the northbound lane.

But then a trooper radioed saying he was on the end of Bridge Access Road in Kenai.

"You're closer than I am," Young responded. That freed Young up to handle a different call that would lead to meaningful results.

That quick shuffling of resources is precisely why the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol was created.

On July 1, the unit will begin its second year of operation. The patrol team started as a two-trooper operation and has expanded to a six-person unit. It's funded through grant money that must be re-applied for each year. Two personnel are based in Girdwood, two are in Soldotna, one Kenai Police Department officer is on loan to the group and one man supervises the team from Soldotna.

The goal of the highway patrol team is to take a mission-based approach to enforcing the Peninsula's traffic laws so the roads stay as safe as possible, according to Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler.

"We try to be proactive in our approach. We have the ability because we are out on the road aggressively and proactively enforcing the traffic laws and trying to be visible so that people will think twice about (their driving)," Fowler said. "So we can hopefully reduce the number of serious injuries and fatal crashes."

Between inception and June 3, the highway patrol team made 58 DUI arrests, 34 traffic related drug arrests and administered 41 driving while license revoked/suspended charges. In addition, the unit handed out 1,146 citations and investigated seven fatal crashes and 77 non-fatal crashes, according to trooper records.

This work is on top of the work done by Soldotna's Alaska State Troopers regular patrol unit. Combined, the two units made 233 DUI arrests, 109 traffic related drug arrests and administered 184 revoked/suspended license citations between July 1, 2009 and June 3, 2010.

Between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009, before the highway patrol unit was in place, Soldotna troopers made 252 DUI arrests, 72 drug arrests and gave out 147 suspended/revoked license charges.

"The stats provided should be looked at as an addition to what patrol does, so we are actually contacting more people and trying to reduce the amount of serious injury and fatal crashes," Fowler said.

Capt. Hans Brinke, commander of the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol, said the traffic risks on the Kenai Peninsula justified the need to bring a unit here.

"We have a lot of issues on the Seward Highway and down through Kenai," Brinke said.

The bureau has units in the Mat-Su Valley and in Fairbanks.

"They're the areas in the state where we're having the most traffic problems," Brinke said.

Young wasn't seeing too many problems from inside his car on Friday night. Then he heard a "Report Every Drunk Driver Immediately" call about a red Pontiac leaving the Mackey Lake area in Soldotna.

He sped to the location, but he didn't see the car. So Young called dispatch to get the alleged driver's last known address.

Suddenly, at 7:26 p.m., there was Terry Vaught, 44, talking on a cell phone while parked in the middle of a side street off the Sterling Highway.

Vaught waved Young through the intersection, and Young pulled up to Vaught's window.

"I'm going to talk to you for a little bit," Young told Vaught.

Earlier, Young had explained that he uses "good verbal judo skills to explain to them why they are getting a ticket. We're out there to enforce the law, not to make the rules."

Young pulled up behind Vaught and approached his window.

Before long, Vaught was out of the car following Young's fingers with his eyes and trying to walk a straight line one step at a time.

Then Young had Vaught blow into a breathalyzer.

"What's it say?" Young asked, showing Vaught the over-the-limit reading.

At 7:41, Vaught was arrested with a felony DUI. The case was a felony because Vaught had two DUI convictions in 2008.

Five minutes later, Young pulled an open energy-infused beer from the Pontiac's driver side door. He found another can unopened in the backseat.

Later, Vaught would fittingly tell Young that he had all his real teeth except his wisdom teeth. At 9:38, Vaught was in Wildwood Pretrial awaiting re-entry into the state's legal system.

"If BHP wasn't here and I wasn't working, what are the chances that this guy was going to get caught?" Young said. "The AST guys were off taking care of something else."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.



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