Target Zero: Ridgefield officer Cuneta on the lookout for unsafe drivers

Rob Cuneta, who grew up in Vancouver, is a police officer in Ridgefield. He is also part of Target Zero, patrolling Clark County’s roadways with an emphasis on traffic safety. Photo courtesy Rob Cuneta
Rob Cuneta, who grew up in Vancouver, is a police officer in Ridgefield. He is also part of Target Zero, patrolling Clark County’s roadways with an emphasis on traffic safety. Photo courtesy Rob Cuneta

Target Zero’s emphasis this month is on speeding, and Rob Cuneta, who grew up in Vancouver, is proud of his work in trying to keep Clark County’s roadways safe

RIDGEFIELD — Earlier in his law enforcement career, Rob Cuneta had the harrowing task of delivering tragic news.

He responded to car crashes that took the lives of drivers, or passengers, and he was the one who would have to tell their loved ones what had happened.

Back when Cuneta was in high school, living in Vancouver, he was riding in a car that got hit by a drunk driver. He and his friends were fortunate that night. 

All of his experiences on the road, though, have led him to his current position as a police officer with the Ridgefield Police Department. 

“With all the bad accidents that I’ve been to, and all the horrible death notifications I’ve had to do … I know if I’m doing traffic enforcement and I’m getting drunk drivers off the road and I’m getting unsafe drivers off the road, every one who I stop is potentially a life saved,” Cuneta said.

Cuneta is also part of the Target Zero campaign for the state of Washington, going on patrols throughout Clark County with a point of emphasis on safety. It is the mission of Target Zero to have zero deaths on the state’s highways and roads by 2030.

“My goal isn’t to throw people in jail,” Cuneta said. “My goal is to keep people safe. If I can stop somebody before they cause an accident … that’s potentially saving a life.”

This month, Target Zero’s emphasis is speed. 

Clark County Today has talked to several law enforcement officers over the past year, and all say that they have seen an increase of drivers exceeding the speed limit.

“Something with the pandemic had people acting reckless,” Cuneta said.

That includes a number of reckless drivers on the freeways and highways. 

Earlier this week, when Cuneta was off duty, he was driving to Vancouver on Interstate 5 when a car passed him and others. Cuneta guessed the car was traveling at 100 miles per hour.

“As an officer but also as somebody who lives in this county and who has a family in this county, just the fact that people are so emboldened to drive like that, with just absolute disregard for other motorists, it’s pretty frustrating,” Cuneta said.

It brought him back to that night when he was a student-athlete at Heritage High School. He and his friends were driving home from a basketball game in Camas when Cuneta noticed headlights coming right at him and his friends. His friend who was driving made a move to avoid a head-on collision, but the car was still struck by the drunk driver.

“It was a pretty close call,” Cuneta recalled. “I just started thinking, there really are people out there driving drunk. If I can get a drunk driver off the road, that’s worth a lot.”

A few years after graduation from Heritage in 2014, Cuneta went on a ride-along with a Portland police officer. That’s when he knew for sure he wanted to get into law enforcement.

In 2019, he became a police officer with the Warm Springs Tribal Police in Oregon.

“I saw a lot of terrible, fatal car crashes,” Cuneta said. “It was me, going to tell moms about their kids or wives about their husbands. It was me, directly seeing the impact of impaired driving or speeding, seeing how that affects people and how you can end someone’s life just like that.”

Cuneta moved closer to home and worked for the Cowlitz Indian Tribal Police before joining the Ridgefield Police Department in November of 2021. He, his wife, and their son also live in Ridgefield.

Cuneta is proud that in his first year at Ridgefield, he broke the department record for arresting the most DUI suspects.

There are no breaks for suspected DUI cases, but for speeders, Cuneta is a lot like a number of officers throughout law enforcement. They can use their discretion.

“Education is always the No. 1 goal,” Cuneta said.

If someone is pulled over for speeding but it is not too excessive, he might take into account the driver’s history before deciding on issuing a citation. He would prefer giving a warning.

Still, there are times when warnings are not warranted.

“In the city of Ridgefield, a lot of our areas are 25-mile-per-hour zones or 35-mile-per-hour zones. Recently, we were doing a Target Zero here in Ridgefield. I stopped a car for going 60 in a 35,” Cuneta said. “It was a 16-year-old girl, and she was crying. I felt really bad but she was going almost 30 over. If someone is going a few over, I’m typically pretty good with a warning. But she was going so fast I had to give her a ticket.”

With the Target Zero campaign, Cuneta often goes on patrol outside of Ridgefield, too.

“I really like to get out and patrol the streets I grew up on, like Fourth Plain, Andressen, Mill Plain, or out in the Orchards are or downtown Vancouver,” Cuneta said.

Vancouver. Ridgefield. Clark County. It’s all home for Rob Cuneta.

And he wants home to be safe for everyone on the roadways.

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