One for the road?: Impaired drivers a danger on peninsula's highways

Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the issue of impaired driving on the Kenai Peninsula.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Kenai police officer Jay Sjogren conducts a traffic stop along Kalifornsky Beach Road last weekend. Local police departments are putting an increased emphasis on DUI enforcement through the end of the year.

With the holiday season upon us, most look forward to gathering with family, eating a nice meal and exchanging gifts. It's a time to catch up with old friends and take a break from the strenuous work week.

Unfortunately, the holiday season also brings with it an increase of impaired drivers to the Kenai-Soldotna area.

Not only are the holidays a more dangerous time to be on the road, but the state of Alaska itself is more dangerous to be driving in year-round compared to other states as far as driving under the influence is concerned.

Since 2002, at least 31 percent of all traffic fatalities have been alcohol related. The largest number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in recent years occurred in 2005, when alcohol was involved in more than half of the 73 deaths.

"It's definitely a problem, but it comes in spurts," said Jay Sjogren, officer for the Kenai Police Department.

From 2003 to 2007, the KPD arrested approximately 100 people for DUIs each year. Soldotna's police department averaged about 92 DUI arrests during that same time period, according to the state.

In 2005 and 2006, there was a decrease in DUI arrests statewide. But in 2007, the number jumped to 5,588 arrests, up 370 from the previous year.

In 2007, there were almost 13,000 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That same year, Alaska was in the top one-third of all states for alcohol-related driving fatalities. Compared to total traffic deaths, more than 34 percent were alcohol related in the state in 2007, according to NHTSA.

According to state statute, a person commits the crime of driving under the influence "if the person operates or drives a motor vehicle or operates an aircraft or a watercraft while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, intoxicating liquor, inhalant, or any controlled substance, singly or in combination."

The statute also states that a person has committed the crime of DUI if "determined by a chemical test taken within four hours after the alleged operating or driving, there is 0.08 percent or more by weight of alcohol in the person's blood or 80 milligrams or more of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or if there is 0.08 grams or more of alcohol per 210 liters of the person's breath."

Sjogren said a common misconception most people have is that if a person blows into a portable breath test and scores over .08, the legal limit, then they're going to jail.

"Before I even offer the PBT, I've made up my mind where they're going. All (the PBT) is used for is a confirmation of my observations," Sjogren said.

"If our judgments say they're impaired, that's a DUI because DUI is driving under the influence," he said. "Even though .08 is the legal limit, that doesn't mean you can't be charged and convicted of a DUI if you blow under it. It's if you're impaired."

Though a person may refuse a PBT from the officer, if arrested and taken to Wildwood Pre-trial Facility, a refusal of a chemical breath test there results in a separate misdemeanor, Sjogren said.

The PBT is the last test Sjogren said he offers to those suspected of a DUI. He first puts the driver through a series of field sobriety tests to determine how, if at all, the person is affected by alcohol.

Sjogren's first uses the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. This is when an officer users their finger or a pen and has the subject follow it back and forth with their eyes.

"We're looking for a nystagmus, which is an involuntary jerking of the eyes," he said.

Sjogren said a person can score from one to six points on an HGN test, six being the worst, making the person more likely to be driving under the influence.

"Off of my nystagmus, I pretty much have a good feeling whether or not they're going to go to jail," Sjogren said. He said if the person scores a four or above on the HGN test, they'll most likely blow a .10 or higher.

Other field sobriety tests Sjogren said he uses are making the subject recite the alphabet, counting backwards from 99 to 77 and standing on one foot to gauge their balance. Sjogren said no two DUI incidents are alike. "Every situation is unique in itself and different."

Besides the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, Sjogren said the NFL Super Bowl and St. Patrick's Day are other times the KPD sees an increase in DUIs. On pay days and after permanent fund dividend checks are distributed are other times DUIs increase.

"DUI isn't just alcohol," Sjogren said. "If it's a controlled substance, then it falls in the category of being a DUI."

A person who has taken too much prescription medication could be arrested for driving under the influence, he said.

A DUI can either be classified as a class A misdemeanor or a class C felony, depending on the circumstances.

If it's a first-time offense, the person can expect to pay a $1,500 fine and spend 72 hours in jail. The jail time and fines increase rapidly if the person has been previously convicted.

For a "routine DUI" a person can expect to pay between $10,000 and $12,000, said Lt. Kim Wannamaker of the KPD. This figure includes court fines, a vehicle impound fee, three days lost of work wages while in jail, a higher insurance rate and the cost of an attorney.

A DUI becomes a felony if the person "either has been previously convicted two or more times since January 1, 1996, and within the 10 years preceding the date of the present offense, or was previously imposed within the last 10 years," according to the statute. A conviction of a felony DUI carries with it a $10,000 fine and 120 days in jail if the person has been previously convicted twice, 240 days if the person has been previously convicted three times and 360 days if the person has been previously convicted four or more times.

Though going to jail might be inevitable for some who choose to drive under the influence, it's not an incentive behind DUI patrol, Sjogren said. "My job ultimately is not to see how many people I can throw in jail, it's to promote the safe and orderly flow of traffic," he said. "My goal is to help find ways to prevent people from drinking and driving."

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.



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