SALT LAKE CITY — The first night in the United States for a family of Japanese tourists ended with the parents being pulled from their rental car at gunpoint with their young son watching after their confusion about American traffic laws set off a high-speed pursuit in southern Utah.
The pursuit began at 1 a.m. Saturday on Interstate 15 near the Utah-Arizona border when the couple's car was spotted going just 37 mph and swerving between lanes, said Lt. Brad Horne, Utah Highway Patrol's DUI unit commander.
More than a dozen patrolmen were working the area in a special DUI operation, and Horne said he figured the car was being driven by a drunken driver. Horne turned on his lights and siren to pull the car over.
Instead of pulling over, the driver sped up to 75 mph and began driving erratically, he said. Her speeds fluctuated between 40 and 75 mph as she weaved across lanes and into the shoulder.
Soon, there were three patrol cars in pursuit with other officers closing highway offramps and setting tire spikes miles ahead, Horne said.
"It was literally red and blue lights in every direction," Horne said.
The couple's car skidded to a stop about 7 miles north of where the pursuit began after three of the tires deflated after hitting the spikes.
A patrolmen bellowed commands from a loudspeaker in his patrol car, telling the couple to exit and walk backward. Both directions of I-15 were closed as officers prepared to encounter hardened criminals.
Instead, a Japanese woman in her early 40s emerged.
"She would walk forward, backward, spin around — obviously she had no clue what we wanted her to do," Horne said.
Still bracing for the worst, officers approached the car with guns drawn and pulled the woman and a man from the car. That's when they saw the couple's 7-year-old son in the backseat and realized the family didn't speak English.
The boy was crying, and the parents appeared nervous and confused, Horne said.
"I think they were terrified," he said.
Realizing they were dealing with language and cultural barriers, and not a drunken driver or fugitive, officers changed their strategy, Horne said. One officer consoled the boy and reunited him with his parents as others worked to get a Japanese-speaking officer on the phone.
They found one in northern Utah who spoke to the couple and learned they had arrived from Japan on Friday morning and rented a car to drive from California to Bryce Canyon in southern Utah.
The woman said she had no idea what she was supposed to do when the patrolman put on his lights and siren, so she sped up to get out of the way. She kept apologizing for crashing the car, not realizing they ran over tire spikes, Horne said. Patrolmen took the family to a motel and wished them safe travels.
Nobody was hurt and no cars damaged other than the flat tires, he said. About a dozen law enforcement officers were involved in some way.
Authorities don't plan to pursue charges.
Horne said the couple didn't have Japanese driver's licenses with them.
Horne said he's encountered many tourists in his three decades working with the Utah Highway Patrol, but he's never seen a situation escalate like this.
"Red and blue lights are a pretty universal signal," Horne said. "Regardless of nationality and language, when we put lights on, people pull over and stop."