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Published: Sunday, 7/4/2004

Mobile phone alerts can aid, hamper police

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - The mobile phone call came into Monroe County's central dispatch office at 10:45 p.m. on May 30. A motorist observed a car weaving on South Dixie Highway and followed the vehicle until sheriff's deputy William Broman turned up.

Deputy Broman activated his siren and lights in an effort to stop the vehicle, but it fled at a high rate of speed on Dixie to eastbound Luna Pier Road. As the car crossed the Norfolk Southern tracks west of Victory Road, the driver, Octavio Cruz Lucero, 22, of Monroe, lost control and slammed into the back of a vehicle driven by Patrick Burkett, 48, of Berkley, Mich., instantly killing him.

Six weeks earlier, in a similar incident, a mobile phone caller alerted deputies to an erratically driven vehicle in Bedford Township. But by the time deputies arrived, an apparently intoxicated Jose Hernandez already had driven his pickup across the centerline and into a vehicle driven by Janice James of West Toledo, killing Mrs. James.

Six people perished in a multivehicle accident on June 21 on State Rt. 2 in Ottawa County after an SUV crossed the centerline. A Toledo woman driving behind the SUV had tried to alert

authorities on her mobile phone about the vehicle, which was weaving, but failed because either she could not raise a signal in an area that lacked a transmission tower or her battery was dead.

With the proliferation of mobile phones, the number of calls to authorities by motorists seeing reckless drivers has dramatically increased. In some instances, lives have been saved, authorities say. But the overall impact remains hard to figure. One measure - the most important one - shows there has been little difference: The number of fatalities related to drunken driving accidents has remained constant in the last four years.

Authorities welcome the calls and believe, if handled properly, they can help.

"I can't put a number on it, but we've had a lot of occasions that citizens have called us on private phones and we've been able to intercept a [drunken] driver and make a stop," said Sgt. Frank Atkinson of the Monroe County sheriff's traffic division.

The idea that mobile phones can help rein in impaired drivers has resulted in the anti-drunken driving advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers drafting a resolution supporting their use for such occasions.

"We think it's very important for people to take action," said Misty Moyse, MADD's media director.

Sergeant Atkinson said there is an occasional downside to all the mobile phone calls.

"If 10 people see the same incident and all call at once, it ties up all our phone lines and dispatchers."

Moreover, Ron Berns, who directs the county's central dispatch, said not every weaving vehicle is being driven by an intoxicated driver, which many motorists might not realize.

"Sometimes we discover that they are on medicines or are diabetic or are just sleepy," he said. "But a lot of them are drug or alcohol-related."

In the case of the SUV driver in the Route 2 accident, tests showed that Brian Woody's blood alcohol level was well below the allowable limit. Drug tests were conducted, and results are expected next week, officials said Friday.

So horrific were the results of the accident apparently caused by Mr. Woody crossing the centerline - two adults and four children were killed - the question authorities fear is raised: Can drivers do more to stop impaired drivers?

"Absolutely not," said Sergeant Atkinson. "People have no authority to make a traffic stop."

He recalled an incident about 10 years ago in which one driver forced another off the road, resulting in injuries to both parties. Such actions could result in felony assault charges against the driver who took the initiative to stop the other motorist. More common, Sergeant Atkinson said, is for truckers to box in an impaired driver until authorities arrive - a legal action.

"The best thing people can do is give us a location and license plate and stay on the line until an officer [arrives]," he said.

Ms. Moyse concurred.

"We tell people to never to try and stop a person. Let the authorities handle it," she said.

Authorities say they have enough problems dealing with impaired drivers themselves. Although Sergeant Atkinson said the overwhelming majority of impaired drivers pull over when asked to do so, sometimes they don't - as in the case of Mr. Lucero, who likely faces vehicular homicide charges.

Every law enforcement agency has its own policy on how to handle such incidents, but for the most decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

"We have to weigh the risk of hurting [innocent drivers] with the risk of trying to get them to stop," said Lt. Greg Greggila, Ohio Highway Patrol's Sandusky post commander. "Also, we have to look at the road conditions, how much traffic there is."

In the Ottawa County accident, where traffic was heavy on a two-lane road, Lieutenant Greggila said even if troopers had been alerted by a caller it would have been difficult for them to work their way safely through traffic from behind to have stopped Mr. Woody.

"Maybe they could have called ahead and had some one out in front of him [try and stop him]. But sometimes our guys will say it's just too risky to get that person stopped," he said.

In the case of the accident that killed Mr. Burkett, it was late at night and traffic was relatively light, so the decision was made to pursue Mr. Lucero.

"The deputy maneuvered around to try and stop the vehicle but the guy accelerated. The pursuit only lasted about three miles," Sergeant Atkinson said. "You have to take each case for what it is, but to just merely follow someone is something we're not inclined to do."

Contact George J. Tanber at gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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