This week is National Passenger Safety Week, and here’s another way passengers can help themselves and others stay safe—reporting dangerous driving to law enforcement.
This week is National Passenger Safety Week (January 22–28), which is all about empowering yourself and others to stay safe even when you’re not the driver. This is the third and final post on the subject, and it covers something we don’t often think about—reporting dangerous driving to law enforcement.
Years ago, I rode along with the Washington State Patrol during a nighttime shift with one of their drug recognition experts (DREs). It was an evening to remember, in which we apprehended a drunk driver who had never been arrested before for this offense (I won’t say he was a first-time drunk driver because by the time such a person is caught, they’ve already driven impaired on average around 80 times).
He was a man in his early twenties who was spotted by others driving erratically on the freeway, and several worried good Samaritans reported him to the police. The impaired driver then exited the freeway and headed for a busy boulevard. At least one citizen followed him off the freeway and stayed behind him so that she could keep telling the police where he was until they could reach him.
By the time my DRE guy and I arrived, local city officers were already at the scene. The drunk driver had apparently passed out behind the wheel and was just regaining consciousness. By some miracle, his foot had happened to come to rest on the brake and not the accelerator, and his car had just cruised to a stop in the middle of the road without drama or anyone getting hit.
When we talk about National Passenger Safety Week, it’s easy to think that it’s all about your safety in the vehicle you’re riding in and the driver you’re riding with. But that privilege we passengers have of speaking up when something’s wrong also extends to what’s happening outside our vehicles. The police officers I’ve spoken to about this have all mentioned that they are extremely grateful to civilians who report impaired, drowsy, aggressive, or reckless driving, or call in when they witness a driver going the wrong way—one of the most deadly of scenarios. Seconds and minutes count in these cases.
Some have told me that by law they are required to investigate every reported incident if there is an officer in the vicinity, so it’s worth reporting if your local police department welcomes that sort of communication (but keep in mind that not all of them do or it can be impractical if distances are far).
As a passenger, you’re in an ideal situation to make a difference, and you can call 9-1-1 anonymously to report unsafe behavior. Tell the operator the color, make, and model of the unsafe vehicle, its location, what direction it’s heading, the license plate number, any description of the driver you can remember, and what the situation is.
But remember that 9-1-1 is only for true emergencies when the public is in imminent danger, not because a driver is doing something that annoys you. Also, never take matters into your own hands and engage a dangerous driver yourself—always avoid eye contact, keep a safe distance from them, and ignore rude gestures.
What if you’re the one driving and there is no passenger to delegate the reporting to? Remember that it should be done only in a safe manner that will not potentially harm others. Because it in itself is extremely distracting, it is not okay to text, call, or even use Bluetooth or hands-free modes to report an incident if you are the one driving unless it is an extreme emergency (like you’re being pursued). Try to memorize the information, then safely pull over first to make the call.
While there are smartphone dash cam apps that can monitor and record surrounding traffic, I don’t recommend using them while you’re driving—the apps can be very distracting in themselves. Your first job is always not to make a bad situation worse. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, not the app.
But don’t be afraid to say something. Remember, speaking up saves lives. Staying silent doesn’t.
For more information on National Passenger Safety Week and tips that could save lives, visit the NPSW website.