It's 11 p.m. Friday and Officer Cliff Paul sips down his coffee, climbs into his cruiser and starts his shift with a reporter riding along. On this night, he's heading out to Milwaukee Avenue, joining officers from 14 law enforcement agencies for a DUI crackdown along the 40-mile stretch from Gurnee to Chicago.
"There's something about Milwaukee Avenue," says Paul, as he pulls off the exit from Lake-Cook Road. "There are a lot of bars in our neighboring towns and there's that opportunity for people to drink and drive."
The multi-jurisdictional mobilization, titled "Providing a Safe Run on Route 21," is being conducted the two weekends leading up to the Christmas holiday, a time when alcohol-related crashes and fatalities spike.
Paul heads north, scanning drivers for any signs of the "fatal five" traffic offenses which include driving under the influence, speeding, seat belt violations, improper lane usage and tailgating.
"This guy is driving out of his lane and following too close," says Paul, as he spots a car weaving out of traffic. "If he pops out of the lane again, I'll pull him over."
He flips on the flashing red and blue lights. The driver slowly pulls over to the side. Paul jumps out armed with a specialized flashlight equipped with a sensor to detect the presence of alcohol.
"How much have you had to drink tonight?" he questions the driver. "Please step out of the vehicle."
Paul conducts a field sobriety test, asking the driver to follow his finger with his eyes and to stand on one leg while counting to 30.
"I smelled alcohol and I wanted to make sure he was OK," he says as he gets back into the cruiser. "I didn't see a lot of movement in his eyes and his balance is pretty good."
It's this driver's lucky night. Paul gives him a verbal warning and lets him go.
Back on Milwaukee Avenue, Paul's radar clocks a driver going 53 mph in a 40 mph speed zone. With a precision U-turn, Paul is on the driver's tail.
"I'll start stopping them 10 miles per hour over the speed limit," says Paul, who noted that speeding is one of the first signs of someone who may be impaired. "Another clue is I've had cars driving on the road with no lights on at all."
Paul is an expert is detecting drunk drivers. Over the span of 13 years, he's made more than 500 DUI arrests and conducted more than 2,000 field sobriety tests.
"It's not something I sought out," he explains. "I come out here sometimes and can't get out of the way of a drunk driver. Years ago a car was coming at me going southbound in a northbound lane and I had to swerve to get out of the way."
Paul has seen firsthand the devastating repercussions of driving under the influence of alcohol. His mother was permanently disabled from working after a drunk driver struck her when Paul was 14 years old. Also embedded in his memory is the night a 22-year-old woman crashed her car into a tree and was killed instantly.
"She was about a block from her house. She was about a .19 alcohol level," recalled Paul. "I had to go with the coroner and tell the family. That's the worst thing have to do in this job."
Since the inception of the Route 21 campaign six years ago, officers have written a combined total of 3,048 citations and made 404 arrests.
Paul said the campaign is making a difference by keeping the roads safer during the holiday season.
"Most people want their moms, dads, brothers, sisters protected from impaired drivers," he said. "I don't think I'd find a lot of people who'd object to us out here taking them off the road."
After responding to a minor fender bender at a gas station, Paul returns the reporter back to the station at 1:30 a.m. before heading back out.
The crackdown along Milwaukee Avenue continues Friday and Saturday.
Paul said if you plan on celebrating with alcohol this holiday season, there's one thing you can do to avoid meeting up with him and to stay safe.
"It's real simple. Either get a cab or a designated driver."