MADD plans to go on patrol for DUIs

Volunteers will look for impaired drivers and notify authorities, not make stops.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 29, 2007

TAMPA - Had a few drinks before getting behind the wheel?

Think again. That harmless-looking minivan in the rearview mirror might be the neighbors on patrol.

That's how Mothers Against Drunk Driving pitched its latest plan to get impaired drivers off the roads.

Called the Traffic Observation Program, the pilot program is slated to begin in Hillsborough County and may become a statewide initiative, according to Don Murray, Florida's executive director for MADD.

The plan: Recruit 20 volunteers armed with donated cell phones and send them out in the middle of the night to watch for telltale signs of drunk drivers.

MADD has worked closely with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, so Murray suggested to other MADD members that the pilot program begin here.

Murray envisions a program that will pair up community members who are willing to go through a screening process, including a criminal background check and an interview to ensure that those going out on the streets have proper training and experience.

He wanted to make it clear that volunteers will not be acting like law enforcement.

"This isn't like a vigilante program," he said. "They won't be attempting to stop or in any way interacting with these vehicles. They're basically just observers."

Volunteers will go out in teams. They will drive their own vehicles and take GPS equipment, so they'll be able to find their way through unfamiliar areas for two to four hours of searching, Murray said. They'll be told ahead of time of the sometimes-subtle clues for drunk drivers, such as driving under the speed limit or lingering too long at a green light, Murray said.

"We certainly don't want our observers to be calling erroneous reports in," he said.

If participants spot a suspicious driver, they will jot down the license plate, a vehicle description and a location and notify the Sheriff's Office. It's up to the deputy to check out the vehicle to determine whether an arrest is appropriate, Murray said.

The program was Murray's idea, he said, inspired by worries of what potential budget cuts could do to law enforcement's DUI teams.

"They'll likely lose officers from the road," he said. "We were looking ahead to try to see what our organization can do."

Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Stephen Decatur said the program is just a formalized process for what already happens everyday: People call law enforcement when they see something suspicious.

He praised the idea, but he cautioned that it's vital that volunteers don't try to do the work of law enforcement in apprehending and accusing suspects.

"If anybody's overzealous, if they play outside the guidelines, then they're acting above and beyond just being observers," he said. "We want them to do it in a responsible manner, and it looks like the program is set up to do that."

Tampa police Cpl. Jared Douds had much the same reaction. It sounded like a Neighborhood Watch group for the roadways.

"Obviously anything that's going to get drunk drivers off the road, we're interested in," Douds. "That's certainly a positive for everybody."

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813-226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com