News

Traffic enforcement campaigns showing progress

by AMANDA WINTERS
Sequim Gazette

Every time someone dies on the roads of Clallam County, Jim Borte prints out the name, age and hometown and thumb tacks it to the cubical walls around his work station at the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

 

“I hope I don’t have to add any for 2011,” said Borte, coordinator of the Clallam County Target Zero Traffic Safety Task Force.

 

The lists serve to humanize the victims of traffic collisions, who too easily become mere statistics, and remind him what he and so many others are working toward: zero traffic fatalities a year by 2030.

 

The Target Zero plan, written in 2000, is the state’s strategic highway safety plan, said Shelly Baldwin, program manager of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s Impaired Driving Program.

 

The plan uses traffic death and serious injury data to identify the state’s top priorities for investing highway safety funds, which pay for agencies to conduct emphasis patrols.

 

The goal is ambitious, Borte concedes. But with the stepped-up emphasis patrols the Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and Port Angeles and Sequim police departments have coordinated over the past several years, real progress has been made.

 

In 2010, seven people died in traffic accidents in Clallam County. While that is consistent with the number of fatalities from 2008 and 2009, it is half the 14 fatalities of 2007 and is a three-way tie for the lowest since 1999.

 

Borte said when he started at the Sheriff’s Office 26 years ago it was normal to have 20 fatalities a year, largely caused by drunken drivers. But as legal consequences became more serious and expensive and public education campaigns increased, the numbers fell, he said.

 

Still, over the past decade the number of fatalities each year involving an impaired driver ranged from two to seven and of the seven traffic fatalities in 2010, five involved an impaired driver. Statewide, impaired drivers account for nearly half the fatalities.

 

Emphasis patrols

The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office participates in traffic emphasis campaigns six times per year in conjunction with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. The campaigns, part of the Target Zero plan, focus on enforcing speed and seat belt laws and cracking down on impaired drivers.

 

“They certainly have been instrumental in the decrease in number of DUI-related traffic deaths and collisions in our county and across the state,” Borte said of the campaigns.

 

Baldwin said 2009 saw the lowest rate of traffic fatalities in Washington state since 1955 and the preliminary numbers for 2010 could make it the lowest year ever.

 

The campaigns are scheduled for times of the year when certain problems are statistically more prevalent.

 

For example, DUI patrols are scheduled for Thanksgiving through New Years, seat belt patrols over Memorial Day weekend and speeding patrols from mid-July through early-August.

 

Deputy Karl Koehler, the newest member of the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Unit, said dedicating manpower to simple traffic enforcement is a huge help in preventing vehicle accidents.

 

Koehler, who began working at the Sheriff’s Office in 2006, recently completed 240 hours of additional training to become a traffic investigator and is one of two dedicated traffic deputies.

 

“When people see the police out, they’re more conscientious of how they drive,” he said.

Serious consequences

Koehler said DUI traffic stops are more serious and if he suspects a driver is drunk, he calls for back up.

Drunken drivers normally will admit they had a drink or two, though they likely had much more than that, he said. He’s had one person try to run away on foot during a DUI stop and countless cry and ask for a break.

 

Protocol for a DUI arrest is to book the driver in jail, which is just the beginning.

 

Borte said most people don’t understand how serious and expensive getting a DUI is. By the end of the process it isn’t surprising to have spent $10,000 or more on the first DUI conviction, he said.

 

Baldwin said about 40,000 people are arrested in Washington each year for driving under the influence.

 

With each conviction it gets more expensive and more troublesome, with jail time, license suspension or revocation, court-ordered rehab and ignition interlock devices for up to 10 years just as a few examples of possible punishment.

 

Also, in Washington, if someone gets four DUIs in 10 years it becomes a Class C felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

 

Borte said 45 percent of people arrested for DUI have been arrested for it previously.

 

“A lot of people think, oh, you go to jail and pay a fine,” he said. “But that’s just the beginning.”

 

The next DUI emphasis patrol is planned for March 11-20.

 

Reach Amanda Winters at awinters@sequimgazette.com.

 

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