Cell phone users help in battle against drunken drivers

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Cellular phones are helping authorities in their battle against drunken driving. While police say they can't always get to a suspected drunken driver, they do encourage motorists to call 911 if they spot behavior that's clearly reckless.

A series of dramatic drunken driving crashes this summer has directed the spotlight on the danger and prevalence of drunken drivers.

But authorities suggest that cell phone users exercise good judgment. Trooper Sgt. Lee Oly said that doesn't mean that every time someone passes you they're driving drunk.

''We don't want to get 100 phone calls a day every time somebody's passed,'' Oly said.

Police said the usual cautions apply. Don't take your eyes off the road to fumble with the cell phone. Don't break the law yourself by blowing through stop signs or speeding if you decide to follow the vehicle. And don't try to reach the driver.

But police do want you to get a good description of the vehicle, the license plate and the occupants.

Law enforcement agencies got together on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1980s and launched a local branch of a national effort to encourage motorists to use 911 on drunken drivers.

''Report Every Drunk Driver Immediately'' -- or REDDI -- eventually moved to the Mat-Su Valley and other areas and now is standard terminology in the world of police dispatch.

With cell phones came an astounding leap in calls from motorists on all types of police calls.

Wasilla Police Chief Charlie Fannon was among those wondering whether programs like REDDI invited abuse. For example, a bitter lover sends police to ''harass'' an ex. He ran through every call from 1998, and found that 70 percent were for legitimately bad drivers.

''I kind of wanted to know, is this something that's wasting our time? With the arrival of cell phones it has just grown rapidly.

''I mean, we have little old ladies on the phone: 'I'm following him! I want a cop right now!' They want this person hung and crucified.''

Staff availability is a concern at police departments around the state.

At Girdwood, for example, four troopers are responsible for nearly 100 miles of highway, night and day. They also snatch overturned boaters from the river, bust burglars, arrest Whittier tunnel protesters and cite people for not bear-proofing their garbage properly, among other duties.

''Some people feel that we're so short-handed, why take the time to call,'' trooper Capt. Jay Yakopatz told the Anchorage Daily News. ''But we may very well have the time and we will respond.''

Last month, a motorist in Portage saw a pickup stuck in a lake. The driver asked her for tow ropes and she declined because he appeared intoxicated. She tried to dial 911 but couldn't get out on her cell. A park ranger and a tow-truck driver with a cell and a two-way radio also saw him. The tow-truck driver pulled him free.

No one called troopers.

Twenty minutes later, the driver slammed into an oncoming car, killing two boys on their way to Whittier to go fishing. The boys, cousins ages 15 and 11, were with their grandparents, who were seriously injured.

''I firmly believe it could have been prevented had someone called,'' said Oly, the trooper sergeant. ''There were two troopers on when that occurred. If somebody would have called and said there is a drunk driver down in Portage, we'd have been down there.''

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