There's a common perception that Seattle drivers are polite to a fault, and pokey as a rule.
But the police officers who patrol the city's roads say otherwise. Seattle’s streets are less crowded than three years ago, but the rate of collisions is rising. And the Seattle Police Department thinks it knows why.
“It’s rare to find anybody actually traveling the speed limit,” said Officer Louie Olivarez, as he patrolled Admiral Way in West Seattle on a recent Tuesday morning. “I’d say 99 percent of people are exceeding the speed limit.”
Olivarez said he finds the same thing when he patrols Aurora Avenue North (SR 99) and other major roads throughout the city. He said he routinely cites drivers for going anywhere from 15 to 50 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. “When you’re exceeding the speed limit by that many miles, it’s extremely dangerous,” he said.
Tickets range from $154 for 15 miles per hour over the posted limit to $411 for 35 miles over. Olivarez also has the option of citing speeders for negligent driving, which carries a $550 citation. Beyond that, the offense is considered reckless driving, a criminal violation that requires a court appearance.
Olivarez is one of four officers who make up SPD’s Aggressive Driver Response Team, which was established in 2007, then disbanded in 2011, only to be reactivated last year.
“Any type of problem in the city that is a high risk of causing injury or property damage is what we concentrate on,” Olivarez said.
Excessive speed is by far the biggest problem. Olivarez said he usually focuses only on drivers going 15 miles or more over the speed limit. But even targeting just the worst speeders keeps him busy, especially when he's patrolling busy roads like Sandpoint Way, West and East Marginal Way, MLK Jr. Way and Rainier Avenue.
The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that about one third of all crashes can be attributed to aggressive driving. But motorists seem surprised to learn that excessive speeding falls under the "aggressive" category.
Olivarez stopped Jim Kuhlman for driving a company vehicle 57 miles an hour on Aurora -- 17 miles over the posted speed limit. Kuhlman said he drives that corridor a half dozen times or more nearly every day and just wasn’t paying attention. Asked if he considered himself an aggressive driver, Kuhlman said: "Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No. No way."
Olivarez gave him a warning instead of a citation, and Kuhlman vowed to slow down: “Oh, God yes. If I have to get out and push the car,” he said.
Olivarez doesn’t just go after speeders. He cites a lot of drivers for following too closely, making unsafe lane changes, and failing to signal.
He also targets drivers who are just as dangerous as drunk drivers but whose addiction is not alcohol -- it’s a cell phone. Staking out motorists on 1st Avenue South in Seattle, Olivarez recently stopped several drivers of large vehicles for talking on their cell phones, including a semi-truck driver and the driver of a large bus used for shuttling workers to job sites. Both received a $124 citation and a stern warning: “You need to stay off your phone while driving; it’s very dangerous.”
Olivarez said he can easily write a couple thousand dollars worth of tickets in a couple of hours. But he said for him it’s not about giving the City of Seattle more revenue -- it’s about giving people a wake-up call.
“I would love to go one day and not have to stop anyone,” Olivarez said.
While he does occasionally stop a driver who's been weaving crazily in and out of traffic, Olivarez said more often the person he’s after is doing things many drivers are guilty of -- speeding, using a wireless device, tailgating or neglecting a road sign.
Report aggressive driving
The Aggressive Driver Response Team also responds to community complaints. In Seattle, you can report a problem by calling SPD's Traffic Section at (206) 684-8757, or call SPD’s non-emergency number at (206) 625-5011. Tips can also be sent in via the department's website.