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Montana Patrol Adds Unmarked Cars to Fleet

December 29, 2003

For the first time in 30 years, the Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) is using unmarked cars for law enforcement across the state, according to the Associated Press. MHP has dispatched seven cars for traffic duty, and the MHP chief knows it may not be a popular decision. "Our intention is not to be deceptive," said MHP Col. Shawn Driscoll. "It's not our intent to write more tickets. It's to make motorists think twice." If drivers know some innocuous-looking car on the road may have a patrol officer behind the wheel, they may reconsider zipping through a stop sign or sneaking around a stopped school bus. While some people are certain to consider unmarked cars unfair, Driscoll said, their minds would be changed after accompanying his officers to just one fatal crash. Charity Watt, spokeswoman for AAA Montana, said her organization has no problem with the return of unmarked patrol cruisers. "Their intentions seem perfectly honest and legitimate," she said. "They're not setting out to trap motorists for doing bad things. They're just trying to promote traffic safety.” MHP got its first unmarked unit about 18 months ago; two more arrived last year. The final four were delivered recently and all seven will be in service by February. Each will be assigned to a patrol district. The cars are the same Ford police interceptors that make up the 225-car patrol fleet. But they don't have the telltale light bar on the roof, or the familiar blue stripe and Highway Patrol shield on the sides. They have plenty of lights; they're just not easy to spot. But once they are activated, there's no mistaking it as a police unit. The front grille holds a pair of red and blue flashing lights, and a small light bar above the passenger's windshield blinks the same two colors. A light bar stretches across the shelf inside the rear window; white strobe lights at each corner of the car and alternately flashing headlights complete the show. The cars are painted different colors - red, silver, light blue and green - in contrast to the usual black cruisers driven by officers. "We want them to have the general look of a police car, but not so someone can tell that instantly," Driscoll said. "You won't be able to tell it's a patrol car as quickly as before." He said the cars will be used almost exclusively on two-lane highways to target some of the most hazardous crash-causing violations that often result in serious injury or death. Motorists who pass cars or school buses illegally, speed through school zones, follow too closely, and ignore stop signs are at the top of the list. Over a five-year period beginning in 1998, those violations have led to some 83,500 crashes, 924 deaths, and 35,100 injuries in Montana, Driscoll said. To focus on that problem, the units will not be used to nab run-of-the mill speeders, he said. "Marked units can write more than enough tickets for speed violations." Driscoll is aware that some motorists might be worried about stopping for an unmarked car, fearful that the flashing lights are a ruse by someone intending harm. To allay that concern, the unmarked cars will be used almost exclusively during daylight hours and the officers driving them always will be in full uniform and easily recognizable, he said.
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