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CELLULAR POSSE TAKES AIM AT DRUNKEN DRIVERS

Mark Waite and his family were headed home to American Fork when a white Cadillac weaved alongside them on I-15, nearly sideswiping the Waite vehicle and forcing it into the next lane.

"He nearly hit two other cars doing the same thing. He was just swerving all over the road," Waite recalled. "That's when I got on my phone and called."Waite, a retired police officer, has been using his cellular phone to alert police to dangerous drivers for years. So when the nonprofit group Freeway Watch began training Utahns for a Cellular Posse, Waite set up a class for fellow adjusters at Nationwide Insurance in Murray.

"When you see your buddy run over and killed by a drunk, you have no tolerance," Waite said.

Freeway Watch, working with the Utah Highway Patrol, is betting that thousands of Utahns feel the same way.

In the three months that troopers have been giving one-hour Cellular Posse classes, more than 1,400 citizens have been trained in who to call, when to call and what details to provide dispatchers.

The posse - essentially a neighborhood watch on wheels - is a way to formalize what already has become one of the most valuable uses of cellular phones: to report crime.

Some 100,000 Utahns use cellular phones; 25 million nationwide use them.

"You're not hiring more police officers, you're just giving police officers more eyes," said Sgt. Dennis Bringhurst, who teaches the Cellular Posse classes in the Salt Lake area.

The advent of a Cellular Posse dovetails with a crusade to get drunken drivers off the road. Federal funds are paying for a new six-trooper, one-sergeant DUI squad, which has posted impressive results since it began in October.

The squad made 531 DUI arrests - an average of 88 per trooper - through February, arrests that otherwise would not have been made, said Lt. Col. Gary Gunrud, the patrol's second in command.

The 223 regular field troopers, who must divide their time among accidents, disabled motorists and ticketing errant drivers, made 1,056 DUI arrests - five per trooper on average - in the same period.

A lower percentage of Utah's fatal accidents are caused by drunks than in other states - about 25 percent compared with a national rate of 43 percent. But, as Gunrud said, "Even if just one person is killed, it's a social problem."

Utah's total traffic fatalities hover around 300 a year; deaths caused by drunken drivers average about 75.

Freeway Watch has helped the DUI squad by raising private and business funding for a video camera and an automated report-writing system that gets officers back on the road minutes after an ar-rest.

The inspiration for the group was the death of Highland High School junior Sean Adkins, who was helping friends change a flat tire in the emergency lane of a Salt Lake interstate on March 1, 1994. A man with nine prior DUI convictions slammed into the youth.

But the boy's friends who were traveling with him to the basketball game that night didn't want that to be the end.

They asked investigating trooper Jeff Peterson what young people could do about drunken drivers. Peterson and his wife, Suzanne, agonized for days over how to answer the boys.

"It just affects you," Suzanne Peterson said. "You can't turn your back on this kind of humanity. It's so hard to find."

They came up with Freeway Watch, and Suzanne Peterson teamed with Carol Clark, a friend and the executive director of the Utah Science Center Authority, to make it happen.

"We cannot let this go on. We can't let our teenagers be slaughtered on the highway," said Suzanne Peterson, who lives in Heber City.

Freeway Watch is packaging the program for national syndication to other citizens groups that want to formally train cellular users, and Peterson hopes training will spread to other parts of Utah soon. So far, Cellular Posse classes have been taught in Salt Lake City, Davis, Wasatch and Summit counties.

In the class for Nationwide Insurance adjusters this past week, Bringhurst stressed that holding a cellular phone does not give one a badge. "You are not a police officer. You are not a vigilante. We don't want you in harm's way."

He showed a video that gives clues for spotting drunken drivers. He told cellular users to stay safely behind, get a license plate number, describe the car, note the traveling speed and location, and stay on the phone with the dispatcher as he or she relays information to the officer.

Never chase a speeding driver, he said. "What do you have then? Two reckless drivers and one with a phone to his ear," he said.

Cellular users dialing 911 do not pay for the call. The emergency dispatcher directs the call to the right agency - city police, county sheriff or highway patrol.

The best calls to make are ones in which there will be physical evidence - a drunken or drugged driver, a brandished firearm, scrapes from a hit and run.

"This is something you can do and remain anonymous," Bring-hurst told the group.

Waite, whose call earlier this winter got a drunken driver off I-15, said it's important for businesses with a stake in safe highways to train employees to help.

"You have to tell the parents their child is dead," Waite told Bringhurst. "And I have to sit down with them and ask how much their child's life is worth."