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Cell phones used in war against drunk drivers

This drunk-driving sign is at a rest stop north of Sacramento, Calif.
This drunk-driving sign is at a rest stop north of Sacramento, Calif.Steven Hellon / California State Dept. of Transportation via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Driving home one night, Caroline Cash spotted a black Honda swaying in and out of its lane on a busy Interstate in suburban Washington.

Cash was concerned that the driver might be drunk. So she used a tactic being pushed by many states — she picked up her cell phone and dialed 911.

“The public is starting to understand ... the tragedies that can occur if no one reports that person,” said Cash, executive director of the Maryland and Delaware chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There is no way that law enforcement can do it alone.”

States are using highway message boards, road signs and public awareness campaigns to encourage motorists to dial 911 on their cell phones if they come across people who might be driving drunk. The messages are expected to be used this weekend to guard against impaired driving tied to Super Bowl parties.

Calif. campaign
In California, law enforcement started a campaign last fall after noting an increase in drunken driving deaths. The state has relayed the message on overhead freeway signs and near rest stops.

Motorists can call in anonymously and are asked to describe the vehicle — its license plate, make and model and color — along with its location.

Some states also have cell phone hot lines to state law enforcement.

Authorities say they use the tips but are required to make their own assessment before pulling someone over. They recommend that motorists pull over before calling, but it typically falls under the emergency exception in states banning the use of handheld phones while driving.

Nationally, nearly 17,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2005, including pedestrians and cyclists, a number that has shown little decline in recent years. In California, the toll was an estimated 1,250.

Delaware recently placed a dozen signs along state roads. The program was modeled after one in Colorado, where motorists have been instructed to dial *CSP — contacting the Colorado State Patrol — to report roadway problems.

“Our feeling is better safe than sorry. If the person does turn out to be impaired, you just possibly saved someone’s life by telling police,” said Andrea Summers, a community relations officer with Delaware’s Office of Highway Safety.

Cell phone issues
The call-in approach isn’t perfect. Calls to 911 from a cell phone frequently need to be routed to the proper jurisdiction because of different wireless carriers and callers who may be traveling far from home.

In Arkansas, the state doesn’t have a specific number for callers to report drunken or aggressive driving or to contact regional divisions of the state police, said State Police spokesman Bill Sadler.

But he said the calls can be routed to the proper authorities. When it comes to road safety, “Quite frankly, we’ll take the information any way we can get it,” Sadler said.

Greg Rohde, executive director of The E9-1-1 Institute, which monitors emergency communications issues, said initiatives like these need to be accompanied by education programs.

“It can be very harmful to the system and impede public safety if 911 calls are ringing off the hook with inappropriate calls,” Rohde said.