SALT LAKE CITY - A Japanese couple on vacation in Utah was pulled from a rental car at gunpoint near the Arizona border over the weekend after leading police on an accidental high-speed chase because they didn't understand US traffic laws.
Utah Highway Patrol officers conducting a drunk driving sting operation spotted the couple's car swerving between lanes on Interstate 15 early on Saturday, according to Lieutenant Brad Horne of the Utah highway Patrol.
Suspecting a drunk driver, Horne flipped on his lights and sirens and went after the vehicle, which was traveling at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour. But instead of pulling over, the driver hit the gas pedal and sped away, Horne said.
Patrol cars gave chase at speeds that bounced between 35 and 75 miles per hour. Officers closed the interstate in both directions, shut down off ramps and lay a set of tyre spikes on the highway to stop the car.
The driver's run came to halt after the car rolled over the spikes and burst three tires, more than seven miles north of the Virgin River Gorge, where the pursuit began, Horne said.
With guns drawn, troopers demanded the driver's surrender and prepared for the worst, Horne said. But instead of a hostile criminal, police found themselves facing a 40-something Japanese woman who knew little English and could not follow police commands.
"That's when it became apparent that we had a language barrier problem," Horne said, adding that the woman's husband, who was in the front passenger seat, also spoke no English.
Neither could produce a driver's license. Officers also found the couple's 7-year-old-son in the back seat "just crying and really kind of traumatized," Horne said.
With the help of a Japanese-speaking police officer reached by phone, the couple told police they had travelled from Japan to California on Friday and were headed to Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park on vacation.
The woman told officers she had become confused when police flipped on their lights and sirens and sped up to get out of their way.
"That's kind of a surprise, lights and sirens are a pretty universal thing," Horne said. "We deal with tourists all the time, particularly from Japan, and we've never had that problem before."
Troopers took the family to a nearby hotel. No charges are expected but Horne said the woman's erratic driving posed a serious threat to other motorists. The squad arrested about eight drunk drivers that night, he added.
"She drove worse than any of those we arrested," he said.