A broken system?

As of Friday, Alaska State Troopers and the Kenai and Soldotna police departments will be participating in a nationwide, three-week-long "intensive crackdown" on impaired driving.


According to KPD Investigator Jay Sjogren, this means Kenai and Soldotna police will be out patrolling beyond their normal bounds, such as up toward Nikiski or closer to Sterling. This "multi-jurisdictional approach" includes more overtime for officers, and consequently more cop cars out on the roads.

That sort of concentrated effort isn't terribly rare. Usually, as with this one, they come around Labor Day weekend or Memorial Day weekend to curb the inevitable increase in alcohol consumption and poor judgement.

But, does the answer to curtailing the death and damage caused by driving under the influence lie in more enforcement, or more prevention efforts?

Public defender William Taylor believes if the area was serious about fixing the impaired driving problem, local government would invest in two things: more education, and public transportation.

"There's a problem in the area that there's no public transportation," he said. "And cabs are very, very expensive."

Sjogren concurs with this observation, noting a lack of public transit paired with the sprawling nature of the Peninsula means people need to drive almost everywhere.

"If you want to go and party with your friends," Sjogren said, "it's a good chance that you might live in Kasilof, Sterling, or North Kenai and you have to drive all the way into Kenai or Soldotna to be at a bar."

If a fraction of the money spent on incarcerating impaired drivers was redistributed and invested in a bus system connecting Kenai, Soldotna and the Kalifornsky Beach area, the number of impaired drivers would drop considerably, Taylor argues.

Instead, he contends, society is more interested in punishing people after the fact rather than implementing infrastructure to keep the problem from manifesting itself to begin with.

"The money is there, and we're choosing to spend it a certain way," Taylor said. "We're choosing to go out and 'get people' and punish them instead of preventing it in the first place."

When a driver is arrested for his or her first DUI offense, the monetary consequences are staggering: court fines, vehicle impoundment and license reinstatement fees, ignition interlock device installation and maintenance, attorney fees, SR22 increased insurance, and assessment and treatment compliance add up to thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Then there's the loss of driving privileges for 90 days, which is a nail in the coffin for many who depend on their transportation to work and to support themselves and their family.

"We see that time and time again where people get their license revoked after being charged with a DUI," Sjogren said. "A lot of these people are repeat offenders on a DWLR (driving while license revoked), and it turns into a vicious cycle where they keep getting arrested for driving without that license that was revoked because of a DUI."

Taylor recalls a client whose parole ended at midnight on March 18. The man was picked up at 11:45 p.m. while driving home from work. The man explained to Taylor that it was a $40 cab ride to and from work, and that $80 was basically all the money he made in a day.

"Once you get your license suspended, it kind of turns into this spiral," Taylor explained. "'There's no public transportation, but I have to get to work, so how am I going to get there? Well, I'm going to drive.' So you end up driving and you get stopped again, you get another suspension, another reinstatement fee, and it's one of these spiraling situations."

Sjogren has seen this happen, and those trapped in this cycle become embittered and start blaming the system or think the police are picking on them when, ultimately, the officers are just doing their jobs.

"We're not going out of our way to make peoples' lives miserable; that's not our goal," Sjogren stated. "Our goal is to keep the roads safe and enforce laws that are set for us to follow."

Taylor balked at the suggestion that public service announcements and other "scare tactics" - like looming billboards with stern-looking state troopers - qualify as prevention efforts.

In Ohio, where he used to practice, first-time DUI offenders either had to spend three consecutive days in jail (mandatory in Alaska), or they could participate in a three-day driver intervention program.

Taylor's area program was called "Steering Clear." Offenders paid out-of-pocket for a spare - no television, no radio - bedroom in a hotel, where they spent three days learning about the hazards of drinking and driving.

Instead of just showing graphic pictures to demonstrate the horrors that can come as a consequence of driving under the influence, the class also delved into the science of what alcohol does to the brain and body. It also revealed how a person might often feel OK to drive, when he or she certainly is not under legal standards.

"Instead of just punishment, we're trying to teach them something while we're at it," Taylor said of the program.

He also noted that education is not the only step toward preventing the problem, but that the Peninsula needs to adopt a multi-pronged approach besides PSAs and increased enforcement.

Ultimately, no excuses can be made for someone who makes the conscious decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. The law and the police officers are not responsible for the situation: the drunk or otherwise impaired driver is the only one to blame.

"It just comes down to making good choices," Sjogren concluded. "And why folks can't seem to do that all the time, I don't know."


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