A Washington pilot program pairs truckers with officers to cut down on aggressive drivers - and it could be in your state soon

By Aaron Ladage
staff writer

When Steve St. James drives along I-5, it’s not the load on his trailer that’s interesting – it’s the officer, armed with video camera and radio, sitting in his passenger seat that gets your attention.

Talk about redefining “riding shotgun.”

Since July of 2003, Washington State Patrol officers have been riding along in the cabs of trucks as part of a statewide pilot program known as “Step Up and Ride.” The program – which was started after a trooper noticed that a majority of fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles were caused by four-wheelers – gives officers the opportunity to catch dangerous drivers in the act as they cut off or drive recklessly around big rigs.

“In our state in 2004, we had 48 fatalities involving commercial vehicles,” said Capt. Coral L. Estes, commander of the commercial vehicle division of the Washington State Patrol. “Out of those 48, 75 percent were caused by the passenger car, not the commercial vehicle.”

Now, after two years of on-and-off operation, the fledgling project has made it to the big leagues. The state patrol has received a $500,000 grant from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and administrative support from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the Washington Trucking Association.

“NHTSA, which is also very big on trying to reduce fatalities in the states, said ‘You know, we need to be involved in this.’ ” Estes said. “It’s a really unique partnership, because normally those two (NHTSA and FMCSA) don’t go hand-in-hand with what their goals and objectives are – they’re two separate entities. We needed to team up because it overlaps so much.”

The newly funded ride-alongs, public opinion surveys and a media awareness campaign will take on a new name – Ticketing Aggressive Cars and Trucks, or TACT. The program will take place in Washington between June 30 and Oct. 3, at which point it will be re-evaluated. If it’s a success, Estes said, officers could soon be doing ride-alongs in trucks across the country.

St. James said the program is a trucker’s dream. He can’t even count the number of times an officer in the cab could’ve helped catch a passenger vehicle driving recklessly around his rig.

Once, when he was driving without an officer and hauling an oversize load, a woman cut between some construction barrels and into his lane. The car came so close to hitting his truck, it took the “Oversize Load” sign off of his front bumper.

“The scary part was that she had a little car seat in the back,” St. James said. Although he did get the car’s plate number and phoned the police, he said he can’t be certain the driver was ever caught, since his word was all that could prove her guilt.

“It happens to drivers around here daily,” St. James said. “They all have their own horror stories. It happens all the time.”

When St. James is on the clock with “Step Up and Ride,” his employer, Boeing Co., donates his time. His only cargo is an empty flatbed trailer and an officer serving as copilot. When a passenger vehicle makes an illegal or dangerous move, the officer – who’s also videotaping the entire thing – radios ahead to a “chase car,” which then makes the stop and issues a warning or citation.

“The officers are just in awe when they see what our visibility is,” St. James said. “They can catch them four or five cars ahead – it doesn’t even have to be me they’re cutting off.”

The enforcement convoy usually travels stretches of I-5, I-405 and I-95. In a four-hour time stretch, St. James said he and the posse of officers usually stop more than 20 vehicles.

“I think it’ll make a lot of improvements, especially when they come to pointing fingers at the trucks being the problem,” St. James said. “I think they’ll see that it’s actually the car drivers out there being the cause of all this.”

Estes said that public perception, which they gather and test at public places and shopping malls, is that trucks are the ones causing all of the collisions, and that people are surprised when the data proves otherwise.

“The public believes that when they pass a big truck, and they can see the front of that big truck in the rear-view mirror, that it’s safe for them to pull back in front,” Estes said. “In reality, it takes (the length of) a football field to pull an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer rig to a complete stop when it’s hauling a full load.”

Although dangerous drivers can be slapped with a ticket – which in Washington ranges from $101 to $525 for negligent driving, following too close, unsafe lane changes or failure to yield – Estes said another key component of the program is education. Every person stopped also receives information about the importance of safe driving near large trucks.

“People are totally unaware of the situations they’re putting themselves in,” Estes said. “Why would you put yourself in these horrendous positions where you’ve got 80,000 pounds coming down on you at 60 miles an hour?”