Cell phone users urged to turn in drunken drivers

Published 5:01 pm Friday, April 15, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota drivers who spot others who appear to be driving drunk are being urged to get on their cell phones and call 911.

Law enforcement is using the cell phone alerts in tandem with cameras that monitor the state’s roads to find drunken drivers and get them off the road before they cause a deadly crash.

Minnesota’s Department of Transportation maintains a traffic video network of about 500 cameras. The cameras are mostly in the Twin Cities, with a handful watching traffic in Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, mostly along interstates.

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The Star Tribune reports state troopers are using the controllable cameras to catch drunken drivers.

“It’s an essential link in public safety,” said State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske.

Dispatchers take 911 calls from drivers who report someone driving erratically, and then use the cameras to zoom in on the offending driver. The dispatcher will then radio a location to troopers, who try to intercept and stop the driver.

“It’s like a video game,” said dispatcher Stacy Haas, describing the joystick she and fellow dispatcher Sarah Johnson use to swivel cameras mounted above the Twin Cities freeways. Haas and Johnson, who work out of an office in Oakdale, were recognized by the state Department of Public Safety on Thursday for their work in preventing fatal collisions.

The two work as a team. One will elicit information from the caller while the other listens and views the appropriate camera. If they’re not sure they’re watching the correct area, they might ask callers to turn on their hazard lights.

Despite their efforts, sometimes Haas and Johnson watch an accident unfold.

The Star Tribune reports Johnson was tracking a wrong-way driver a few years ago on Interstate 35W when the driver struck a truck head-on. The wrong-way driver was killed while the truck driver suffered minor injuries.

“It goes without saying it’s one of the stressful parts of their job,” said State Patrol Lt. Chris Erickson, who was the trooper racing to stop the drunken driver that night.

State Patrol statistics show citizens with cell phones turn in about 20 drunken drivers a day. That is about a quarter of the patrol’s annual drunken-driving arrests.

“We urge you to call 911,” Erickson said.

But Johnson, the dispatcher, says callers should know where they are and the direction they are going when they call.