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Trooper Dave Martin: High-tech and high speed

Trooper Dave Martin is the very model of a modern Washington State patrolman: committed, professional, caring, smart and tough.

My only concern was, could he drive fast?

I had been invited for a ride-along with Martin on the 4-to-midnight shift Friday. The roads were slick, with patches of black ice playing havoc with even the most careful drivers.

By 5:30 p.m. we were slowly cruising back country roads, on the look-out for folks in too much of a hurry for driving conditions.

“Whenever it’s slow for us out here, that’s a good thing,” Martin said.

Suddenly, without warning, Martin floored his Police Interceptor and hung a “U” on Maxwelton Road, lights flashing and siren roaring.

From the State Patrol’s dispatch in Marysville had come word of a rollover on Smuggler’s Cove Road, north of Greenbank. The only trooper on duty, it was Martin’s task to go there and back up county deputies.

Go there. As in, real fast.

The Ford Crown Victoria’s powerful 4.6 liter V-8 quickly brought us to 65 mph on Bayview Road at Highway 525.

I put down my notebook and tightened my seatbelt.

We slowed, barely, to make the left turn onto the highway as the other drivers prudently let us pass. Lights and siren notwithstanding, I wasn’t quite sure everyone on the road had seen or heard us.

As we barreled north at 70-plus mph, traffic parted like the Red Sea for Moses. Not everyone was attentive, and occasionally we veered into the left lane to pass some chucklehead who failed to pull over.

Sometimes a driver would try to take advantage by moving ahead of stopped cars. Martin noted the $1,050 penalty for ignoring emergency vehicles. “And we definitely enforce that law,” he said.

When we arrived at the scene, deputy Rick Norrie and a tow truck were already there. A large SUV had slid into a ditch — the driver was OK, but her vehicle had a lot of new scratches.

After reviewing the situation with Sgt. Norrie, Martin radioed in “clear” and we continued our patrol.

Welcome to my Interceptor

The neighbors must have wondered as Trooper Martin picked me up at my home earlier that evening.

Before getting underway there were a few formalities.

First, I learned how to operate the radio and light flares in case of an emergency, then the first aid kit’s location and how to unlock the shotgun sitting upright on my left.

I avoided thinking too hard about the circumstances under which I’d need to unlock the shotgun.

Finally, I signed a paper absolving the State Patrol from liability in case things got out of hand — the shotgun scenario and so forth.

For the record, each state trooper carries a Heckler & Koch .40-caliber sidearm and wears full body armor.

Martin asked me politely to remain inside when he made traffic stops. If he put anyone in the back seat I was to resist the impulse to ask questions.

“It could possibly violate their rights and you might be called as a witness down the road,” he explained.

I promised to obey all commands and we headed south on Highway 525, me taking notes, Martin patiently clicking his wireless remote controlling the Stalker DSR 2X.

The Stalker reaches out

Mounted on the dashboard, the Stalker DSR is the ultimate in high-tech laser-guided radar detection, allowing patrolmen to check the speed of an oncoming car or one going the same direction, ahead or behind. Martin keeps the power off until a car is close enough for a reading, meaning those personal radar detectors also on the road were high-priced junk metal.

By displaying both strongest and fastest targets simultaneously, the Stalker can monitor faster vehicles passing larger cars and show both at the click of the remote.

And it works. Driving down Double Bluff Road, the display showed an oncoming truck going 50MPH in a 35MPH zone. We turned and followed the truck to a well-lit wide spot on the road.

“We passed a couple of kids walking and the road’s icy,” Martin said. “This is one of the county roads we patrol regularly.”

Stopping behind the offender, Martin turned the wheels out so a rear-end collision won’t force his patrol car into another vehicle. “And, the door offers more protection if I need to use my weapons,” he said.

Since the patrol was organized in 1921, 26 officers have died in the line of duty, most from hit-and-runs. Four, however, died from gunfire — the last was James Saunders, shot in 1999 during a traffic stop in Pasco.

Martin checked the license number with dispatch, then wrote the ticket — in this case, the penalty was $122.

Life in the fast lane

Martin, 39, came late to the patrol.

After eight years as an Army Ranger, he worked for an aerospace firm in Yakima where he met his future wife, a local police officer.

“I missed the camaraderie of the service, the esprít d’ corps,” he said. “I told myself there’s got to be something more to life.”

After an intensive selection process and training (see box, this page) Martin and his wife were assigned to Freeland where they live with their son, Sam, 4. In fact, all seven troopers on the Whidbey beat (which includes Fidalgo Island) live here.

“This is the community where we live. We have a vested interest in the safety of our friends, family and neighbors,” Martin said.

That patrolman live on the island comes as a surprise to some citizens, one of many misconceptions people have about the patrol.

For instance, there are no “quotas” on tickets, and all the money collected goes to the county or city where the infraction was written.

When stopped by a trooper, being either nice or belligerent doesn’t help, either.

“My mind is made up when I get out of the car. If you yell at me that won’t increase the penalty,” Martin said.

“I just assume you suffer from bad social skills. I always try to treat people with respect. I fully understand I’m not meeting them at their best.”

On this night, we handed out several speeding tickets, checked for driving under the influence — DUI — twice and issued warnings for busted headlights and a slow rolling stop.

Martin said he won’t write a ticket for going 8 mph above the limit, but will at 10 mph. “Reasonable people know they’re speeding at that level,” he said.

He considers the word “accident” to be misleading.

“I investigate collisions, for which there is almost always human error of some sort.”

He pointed to that night’s earlier SUV collision. “No other cars were involved but I suspect the driver was careless on that icy road. She had a collision with the trees, but not an accident.”

Martin said most collisions are caused by excessive speed, impaired driving (alcohol, drugs, prescription drugs), aggressive driving and, in event of injury, not wearing a seatbelt.

“Impaired drivers are the real problem,” Martin reflected. “They are selfish and uncaring in their drunkenness. Alcohol affects their decision-making process.”

One in 10 drivers on Washington roads is impaired, according to patrol statistics; one in seven around the holidays.

Taking a break at Arby’s

The patrol’s office in Oak Harbor is spare and utilitarian but for a spot of color on one shelf — rows of plastic bags stuffed with donated blankets and teddy bears that are given to children who are involved in crashes.

“They’re frightened, uncertain of the future, cold and helpless,” Martin said. “We’re not robots and it affects us.”

He showed me gruesome photos from recent crashes that will never show up in a family newspaper.

“These were normal people who made bad decisions and paid the ultimate price,” Martin said.

We took a short break to meet Troopers Will Knutson and Norm Larsen at the Arby’s in Oak Harbor.

Over chicken strips and fries, Larsen shares the sad tale of writing up sailors nabbed for driving after too many beers.

“They were drunk and got caught,” Larsen said. “With the naval station’s new emphasis on zero tolerance, they know their service is in jeopardy,” Larsen said. “Several broke down and cried.”

Harsh, but these men routinely deal with the results of drinking. Of seven county fatalities on the road this year this year, four were alcohol-related. Since the middle of November, 22 DUI citations have been issued.

As we headed back down the highway and home, Martin reflected on the real reason he became a Washington State Trooper.

“It’s really very simple,” he said. “Everyone has the right to go to work, or the movies or the store safely without the fear of being hurt or killed. We know people are not happy to see us, but I want everyone to be safe. That’s what I do.”

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