Tracking Impaired Drivers in Austin

Photo of an alleged drunken driver being tested being given sobriety test by police.

For six years, Corporal Ryan Herring (BA ’97) served on the innovative DWI Enforcement Team at the Austin Police Department, which helped pioneer “No Refusal” blood search warrants, participated in research and trained judges on field testing in impaired driving case.

Herring is among an elite group of officers in Texas known as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), a position earned after completion of special training to recognize the signs and symptoms of drugged and drunk driving. Now a supervisor on street patrol in southwest Austin, Herring uses those skills daily when dealing with accidents, erratic driving and training officers to recognize impaired drivers in the field.

“The DWI Unit is one of the better ones in the state and is an active unit in searching out intoxicated drivers,” said Herring. “When I was there, 10 officers on a shift of 14 were DREs. We were involved in the study of field sobriety tests, and we were the second county in Texas to use blood search warrants. We also collaborated with local judges and attorneys on training about sobriety checkpoints.”

Drugs and alcohol continue to be a problem on Austin roads, with more people being killed in traffic accidents in the city than by murder. In 2009, statistics from the Austin Police Department showed that 85 percent of the collisions that occurred between midnight and 2:59 a.m. involved drivers who were under the influence of alcohol. During that same time period, more than half of the fatal collisions involved drivers who were under the influence of alcohol. These days, more drivers are on medications, such as anti-depressants, and do not realize the impact alcohol has on the prescriptions, Herring said.

“A drunk driver is more likely to kill a police officer than someone with a firearm,” Corporal Herring said. “I look at it as self preservation. “

The DRE course at SHSU teaches officers to recognize the signs of drugged and drunk driving.
The DRE course at SHSU teaches officers to recognize the signs of drugged and drunk driving.
Herring joined the DWI Unit in 2001 and experienced many drivers who were obviously impaired but tested under the legal limit for intoxication. In 2003, he pursued the DRE training, a National Transportation Safety Program initiative at Sam Houston State University, which focuses on recognizing and apprehending impaired drivers. The course trains candidate law enforcement officers as Drug Recognition Expert (DREs) through a three-phase, 152-hour training curriculum that includes Drug Recognition Pre-School, Drug Recognition Expert School, and Drug Recognition Field Certification.

“A DRE is trained to conduct independent evaluations on subjects who have been arrested for impaired driving,” said Cecil Marquart, Director of the Impaired Driving Initiatives program. “The DRE is able to determine what, if any, drug categories might be causing impairment in an individual. DREs also are trained to detect medical conditions that may mimic impairment such as seizures or blood sugar levels.” Herring is among the elite group of law enforcement officers who are not only specially trained on drug impairment but have a passion for removing impaired drivers from our roadways.

Because of the extensive training received, many impaired driving cases involving DRE witnesses plea out and do not go to court.

“It attaches the word ‘expert.’” said Herring. “Only 350 out of thousands and thousands of law enforcement officers in the state are DREs. You are in the elite 1 percent.”

Herring also is certified as a DRE instructor, which requires an additional five days of training in adult learning theory, effective presentation skills, and techniques for conducting effective training. DRE certification training courses are led by at least two DRE-certified instructors.

“It (The DRE instructor position) has given me opportunities to teach, to network with other officers and to realize your department is doing things well,” said Herring.

During his tenure with the DWI Unit, Travis County encompassed only the second county in the state to implement search warrants for blood evidence if a suspect refused a breathalyzer. The practice, commonly known as “No Refusal Weekends,” is now widespread in Texas.

In addition, due to their proficiency, the unit was chosen to participate in research with Dr. Marcelline Burns, developer of the standardized field sobriety test, in order to determine if the horizontal gaze test was effective if a suspect was sitting or laying down. The study found that the results are valid regardless of posture.

The Austin DWI Unit has trained judges and attorneys on testing done at the time an impaired driver is pulled over. Finally, in the past, all new recruits for the police department were required to spend two weeks with the DWI unit as part of their training. The process is no longer required but still encouraged and many officers still take advantage of the opportunity.

Before joining the Austin Police Department, Herring served as a intern with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Houston. He ran into many of those officers again through the DRE program.

“It was fun and a good learning experience,” Herring said. Herring also developed camaraderie with police officers from other countries. Through the Star International Exchange Program, Herring learned a lot about policing procedures in Germany and built strong friendships. Since 2002, Herring has visited the country about a half dozen times taking part in the exchange program as well as visiting his German colleagues.

“Crime is crime,” said Herring. “A drug deal in Germany looks like the same drug deal in the U.S.”

Still, he is keenly aware of differences between police procedures in different countries. For example, German officers must have an articulated reason to handcuff a suspect following an arrest, and officers perform their traffic stops in front of a vehicle, a practice that would make police particularly vulnerable to armed suspects in the United States, who approach from the rear.

“Having citizens with guns is extremely rare in Germany,” Herring said.

Herring said that Sam Houston State University provided a lot of different perspectives in criminal justice as well as good professors. His degree also earned him an additional $200 a month in salary. Herring recommended that college students get focused early on their future careers.

“If you want to go into law enforcement, you need to stay focused and do the things you need to do so you don’t get distracted and eliminated,” said Herring.

Member of The Texas State University System