Motorists Use Mobile Phones to Help Curb Drunk Drivers

Times Staff Writer

A Van Nuys printing company salesman named Richard Wood reacted quickly when a car veered in front of him one recent afternoon on the Golden State Freeway near Burbank.

His foot went for the brake. His hand went for the telephone.

“I got the Highway Patrol right away and gave a description of the car and its license number,” said Wood, 44. “I told them the guy seemed drunk and had passed me once on the right and had swung across my lane into the No. 1 lane and was swerving into other lanes.”

A few minutes later and a few miles farther, the California Highway Patrol had its man--one of a growing number of drunk drivers being foiled by motorists with mobile phones who can easily dial 911.

Authorities say citizen reports of suspected drunk drivers have climbed steadily since cellular telephone service was launched in Los Angeles 15 months ago.


Phone Network to Grow

These days, nearly 60% of all emergency telephone calls to the Highway Patrol’s Los Angeles headquarters come from the 35,000 Southland cars that now have mobile phones, CHP officials say.

Starting next week, the mobile phone network will be extended for the first time into Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura, according to Pac Tel Mobile Access, the company that operates scattered base stations and charges motorists 45 cents per minute for calls.

Next month, Pac Tel hopes to drop that fee for calls made to the 911 emergency number. The state Public Utilities Commission is expected to approve such free calls on Oct. 17, said Willard Dodge, senior PUC utilities manager.

“You watch your air time when you have a cellular phone because it can get expensive,” said phone user Wood. “But I’m not reluctant to call the CHP when I see an erratic driver. I don’t hesitate.”

‘Fresh’ Information

Others with cellular phones are equally quick to call when they spot a drunk driver or come upon an accident, according to Highway Patrol officials.

“People with car phones are very helpful. They give us information that is very fresh,” CHP spokesman Jon West said Friday. “We find out about things right away instead of minutes later.

“The drunk driver doesn’t know who’s going to call and turn them in. The more people who get these phones, the safer it’s going to be out there.”

West said 890 of the 1,500 emergency calls received last month by the CHP through Los Angeles’ 911 emergency telephone exchange came from drivers using car phones.

Betty Bienstadt, a Pac Tel Mobile Access manager, said her company is preparing a brochure for mobile telephone customers that explains proper procedures for reporting emergencies from a car and the types of situations that should not be treated as an emergency. She said the phones can be used easily with one hand or pre-programmed to automatically dial the 911 number.

New Interest in CB

She said Pac Tel also plans to start a program in October to honor motorists who use their mobile phones to report drunk drivers and other emergencies.

The cellular-phone boom is also helping stimulate new interest in the use of citizens band radios in reporting drunk drivers to police, according to leaders of a national CB radio group.

Although the CB craze peaked in the late 1970s, as many as 20 million of the radios are still around, according to Gerald Reese, executive director of REACT, a Chicago-based CB organization of CB users with 15,000 members.

REACT has launched its own drunk-driving crackdown by distributing windshield decals and “Impaired Driver Alert” brochures that urge drivers to report suspected drunks on CB radio channel 9.

“Probably 10% of all motorists have access to CB radios,” Reese said. “We’re trying to encourage people to take those radios out of garages and basements and put them back in their cars.”

Radio Base Stations

Unlike cellular telephones that allow for private conversations, CB transmissions can be heard--and interrupted--by other CB users. Cellular phones use scattered radio base stations that connect their short-range mobile radios to conventional telephone lines. Computers automatically switch the mobile radios from one base station “cell” to another when a call is made from a moving vehicle.

“Nowadays, CBers will stop talking and back off when someone comes on to report an emergency,” said Keith Tucker, a retired Sylmar trucker who has used a CB for 12 years. “I keep mine on at home from about 7 in the morning to midnight, listening for calls that should be relayed to police or fire.”

Tucker, 56, said he has reported about 200 emergencies over the years. About 20% of them have been incidents he has encountered by chance while driving.

In Camarillo, however, a group of CB operators takes to the streets each week to hunt for drunks, burglars and other suspected lawbreakers.

‘Eyes and Ears’

“We go out where the police want us to go and provide them with eyes and ears,” said Wesley Furqueron, a 63-year-old retired missile engineer. “We stay in our cars and call on the CB to our own base station if we see anything that’s not kosher. The base station telephones the police. We have no problems at all with turning in drunks. If someone’s driving erratically, you betcha.”

Cmdr. Ray Abbott, head of Ventura County’s Camarillo sheriff’s station, said the 18-member CB team is a valuable extension of the Neighborhood Watch concept. “They’ve done good things for us. They’ve been valuable out here,” he said Friday.

Abbott said he is also looking forward to the arrival of cellular mobile phone service in Ventura County.

“I don’t know how many of the phones are out here, but I’ve got to think it will allow citizens to have better access to police and give us better information,” he said.