New pursuit law changes rules of the road

Initiative 2113 is just one of many aspects that will impact collisions in Island County

Whidbey criminals in cars should beware. A new state law that recently went into effect restores police authority to pursue a fleeing suspect when there is reasonable suspicion that the runner violated the law.

In the past, police officials have complained that suspects think they can simply drive away from a crime at high speed because officers are barred from pursuing.

“The people that were stealing vehicles now went as soon as they saw police,” Oak Harbor Police Chief Tony Slowik said recently. “They knew they could just take off because we couldn’t do anything about that.”

But that has now changed.

What that means for lawful drivers is unclear. Officials have correlated the 2021 law with the increase in statewide traffic fatalities, while Whidbey only saw an increase in fatalities in recent months.

So far this year, the Island County Prosecutor’s Office reports receiving 10 felony referrals in attempting to evade a pursuing police vehicle cases. In many of those cases, the officers were forced to end the pursuit because of the law or safety reasons, but ended up identifying the suspects when they abandoned or wrecked their cars.

Initiative 2113, which went into effect last week, comes after a 2021 law that restricted police officers to be able to engage in pursuits if the suspect had committed a specific felony such as assault, driving under the influence or escaping from custody.

According to the Department of Transportation, 2021 saw 597 collision-caused fatalities, up-ticking every year since the law came into effect with 691 in 2022 and 728 in 2023. Island County, which sees just a few fatalities a year, did not coincide with this trend. Though in just the first half of 2024, Island County’s fatalities are very high compared to other years.

Island County saw its sixth fatality last week, when police responded to a two-vehicle head-on collision on East Crescent Harbor Road. A woman and her dog were rushed to emergency services while the driver of a pickup fled the scene on foot. This already surpasses the 2023 mark, which saw four fatalities all year.

Oak Harbor police report that consistent collision hotspots in Oak Harbor include the intersections of Barrington Drive and 11th Ave, Highway 20 and Whidbey Avenue, Highway 20 and Midway Boulevard, Highway 20 and Seventh Avenue, and Bayshore Drive and Erie Street.

Initiative 2113 is just one of many aspects that will impact collisions in Island County, Slowik said. A bigger piece is traffic calming.

“Police pursuit isn’t part of traffic calming,” he said. “Being visible and being present is traffic calming.”

Often, this doesn’t mean citations. Most of Oak Harbor Police Department’s contacts are verbal warnings, which are effective to correct behavior, he said.

“As a small community, a lot of us know each other and we feel like that contact and correcting behavior is the goal,” he said.

The department deploys four radar trailers, which shine red and blue lights, alerting drivers of their speed and collecting speeding data. The new trailers take photos of the cars and record license plate information, but there is no city ordinance to give tickets based on radar trailer data at this time.

“Those lights are effective,” Councilmember Bryan Stucky said at a recent council meeting. “I don’t know from personal experience, of course.”

In the ongoing effort to reduce collisions, Slowik is working toward police motorcycle training, expanding the radar trailer program, improving the roadways and applying for grants for traffic emphasis and educational programs, he said.