Like many drivers, Prineville resident Mark White always keeps his eyes peeled for police cars, especially those unmarked one.
“I’m pretty attuned to watching for them,” White said from his car on Highway 97 Friday. “I drive a sports car, and they get some attention — I’m a safe driver, but I can speed.”
So he was a little surprised when he was pulled over by Oregon State Police Senior Trooper William Duran’s charcoal-gray Dodge Charger that, arguably, puts other unmarked cars to shame.
“Oh absolutely, it’s the stealth car,” White said. “Much harder to identify. You can’t deny it’s going to be an effective tool.”
Duran just started driving one of 40 new unmarked patrol cars OSP plans to put on state highways. Duran’s is the first car to hit the road.
According to OSP spokesman Lt. Bill Fugate, the agency now has just a handful of unmarked patrol cars that are spread thin across the entire state.
“It’s not easily seen, so you are able to detect a whole lot more violations,” Duran said. “The marked units you can see from a mile away.”
The car does not have a bright yellow ‘publicly-owned’ license plate. There’s no large antennas or push bars on the grill. The lights are well-hidden.
“Some people would say it’s not fair play, but as troopers we have to do things that work,” Duran said. “I think that unmarked vehicles will create a huge impact, as far as increasing safety.”
The sneaky strategy is one OSP hopes will help combat a growing problem:
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in fatal crashes,” Fugate said. “We’re attempting to have better strategies with the resources we have.”
Oregon Department of Transportation reports show traffic fatalities increased 13 percent in 2014.
In Central Oregon, the numbers are much more grim: NewsChannel 21 reported in August that fatal wrecks to date were up 64 percent for 2015.
“This could be attributed to many things,” Fugate said. “Whether it be highway miles traveled, lower fuel costs, a better economy.”
Fugate also acknowledged more drivers are distracted behind the wheel.
“We’ve had a lot of roadway departures,” he said. “People just running off the road for unknown reasons, and generally we can assume they’re using their handheld devices.”
A 2014 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the percentage of drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating handheld devices increased from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 2.2 percent in 2014.
On a short ride-along with Duran, NewsChannel 21 spotted dozens of people talking on cellphones, texting, speeding and driving without a seat belt.
In three hours, Duran handed out some warnings and several tickets — the price that he said might keep people safer on roads in the future.
“Hopefully, the word gets out there that we are out here,” Duran said.
White did not get a ticket for failing to properly display his license plate on his Corvette. But he said he appreciates the reminder that there’s a good chance cops will see you before you see them.
“Whatever they can do to maximize their efficiency, I get it,” White said.
Four unmarked patrol cars, including Duran’s, will be based in Bend. The rest will be spread along the I-5 corridor.
Fugate said the new unmarked cars won’t cost the agency extra cash, as they are adding them as older cars are retired. But they are expected to have tangible benefits, as people find out they are out there, and not so easy to spot.
“If there’s unmarked vehicles on the road, people are a little more hesitant to engage in risky driving,” Fugate said.