DUI arrests up in Eagle County
Bill Miller can tell you all the reasons why it’s a better idea to call his taxi service when you’ve had too much too drink.
Miller, owner of D.D. Taxi, said the average price for a ride home after a night on the town is about $10. Multiply that times 365 – the number of days in a year – and users will still pay less than the typical $5,000 in fines and court costs one drunk driving conviction can cost.
With that in mind, it makes sense why his call volume is up.
“If it isn’t that they’ve gotten a DUI themselves,” he says of his passengers, “they’ve seen their friends get a DUI. Too many people have seen their friends get into trouble.”
Conventional wisdom might suggest that people are getting the message about the costly and even dire consequences of drunken driving. Statewide, drunken driving arrests are down, state officials say. Neighboring Summit County also has had a drop in drunken driving arrests.
Nevertheless, DUI arrests in Eagle County went up last year, after four years of steady decline. In 2003, police made 692 DUI arrests compared with a low of 542 the year before. Those numbers only include DUI arrests that did not involve an accident. The Eagle County District Attorney’s Office also had an increase in DUI cases, 727 in 2003 compared with 662 the year before.
Interpreting those numbers can be tricky, law enforcement officials said. A spike in DUI arrests doesn’t necessarily mean there were more drunken drivers on the road in 2003 than the previous years, Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said. Rather, it can indicate that police simply got more drunken drivers off the road.
“I think it shows clearly how aggressively you are patrolling for those things,” he said.
More patrols, more arrests
Take, for example, DUI numbers in Vail. After making 209 drunken-driving arrests in 1999, the arrest tally dropped. Only 186 arrests were made in 2000 and 184 in 2001. Vail Police had a significant drop in DUI arrests in 2002 with 108. Last year, Vail Police made 136 DUI arrests.
Henninger said there are a couple of possibilities for the declines. For the past two years, Vail Police were operating a “stay-out-of-jail” program that allowed revelers in Vail Village to measure their intoxication level before they got into their cars.
Drivers with a blood- or breath-alcohol content of .1 or higher can be charged with a DUI. Drivers also can be charged with driving-while-alcohol-impaired, or DWAI, if their alcohol level is between .05 and .09. Presumably, some who checked their intoxication level decided to hand the keys over to someone else after discovering they were too intoxicated to legally drive, but the stay-out-of-jail program was discontinued.
In addition, Vail police spent about two years operating without federal Law Enforcement Assistance Fund or LEAF grants that pay police overtime wages to patrol for drunken drivers. However, the department was awarded those funds this year, Henninger said.
“I think we will make a whole lot more DUI arrests,” he said.
Avon Police have used the LEAF grant program for three years and DUI arrests have increased each of those years. In 2003, Avon police officers made 123 DUI arrests. The federal program allows the department to keep a standard number of officers on duty while adding an extra officer to do traffic patrol, said Officer Steve Hodges, the department’s LEAF grant administrator.
“We’re a small department – if you get one extra car out it increases the chances of doing traffic patrol and DUI patrol quite a lot,” he said. “The other officers are generally kept pretty busy on calls for service.”
Arrests up, accidents down
There seems to be no question that DUI enforcement is an issue of public safety. Just look at the Colorado State Patrol’s numbers for DUI arrests and DUI-related car wrecks.
In 2003, troopers made 244 DUI arrests that didn’t involve an accident. That same year, troopers investigated 58 DUI-related car wrecks – the lowest number of DUI-related crashes in a five-year span. In 2001, troopers made 160 drunken driving arrests, the lowest number in that time period. They also investigated more DUI-related accidents in 2001 – 72.
Sgt. Shawn Olmstead speculates that in 2001 troopers had to cover more crashes overall and were not available to concentrate their patrol efforts on picking up drunken drivers.
“I think it just has to do with the officers, if they have the time,” he said. “It means they are not out covering crashes in a snowstorm . Those years where we had a lower number of DUI arrests it possibly was a bad winter.”
Patients from car wrecks who are suspected of using alcohol or drugs can be tested when brought to the emergency room. In 2003, the Vail Valley Medical Center reported only 1 percent, or 150, of those patients tested positively for alcohol; 0.6 percent, or 90 patients, tested positively for drugs. The hospital treats 15,000 emergency room patients a year, said Scott Boie, director of public relations. That is a slight increase since 2000, when less than 1 percent of patients tested positively for drugs or alcohol.
Getting the message
Judging by the number of drunken drivers intercepted during the occasional DUI checkpoints set up in the valley, there are actually fewer people hitting the road intoxicated, said Eagle County Sheriff’s Deputy Heath Mosness.
“I’ve been doing DUIs for our county for quite a while and I can tell you that I’ve kind of seen it decrease,” he said.
Media attention to drunken driving, as well as ad campaigns aimed at curtailing the problem, have helped, Mosness said. Advertising DUI checkpoints and increased patrol during special events may also have had an impact.
“When people drive by at 2 a.m. and see somebody on the side with blue and white lights flashing behind them, it goes through their mind that it’s not a good idea to drive drunk,” Avon’s Hodges said. “The cops are out.”
Perhaps the best way to cut down drunken driving may be word of mouth. To go back to Miller’s suggestion, knowing someone who has been arrested for drunken driving makes others think twice about taking the risk.
“Word travels quick among the locals,” Hodges said. “If someone gets a DUI after leaving a bar, when they go back to that bar, they generally tell everybody about it.”