DUI arrests down, problems persist: Fatalities resulting from alcohol-related accidents remain steady

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2010

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently released a report claiming that the state of Alaska has seen a "significant drop" in its residents' rate of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

Entitled "State Estimates of Drunk and Drugged Driving," the report considered combined survey data from 2002 to 2005 and 2006 to 2009. But even though the rate of drunk driving among Alaskans 16 years of age or older dropped nearly four percent in the survey period, some police staff in the Kenai-Soldotna area are reluctant to attribute this change to a singular factor, such as a more responsible public.

"I think there's a lot of variables affecting the numbers," said Sgt. Duane Kant, the Soldotna Police Department spokesman. "You may have one year where DUI numbers are down in 2010 from 2009, but it would be hard to attribute that to the general public behaving better, in my opinion. It may be due to less man-hours or less traffic grant money available so there's less hours on the road or us being short-staffed. So I would hesitate to attach too much importance to the numbers going up or going down."

Moreover, the worst consequences of drunk driving -- alcohol-related traffic fatalities and injuries -- have refused to budge for almost a decade, according to the SAMHSA report. That means that even though there are apparently less people driving drunk, the ones that continue to do so are still inflicting the same amount of damage.

"It's one thing to look at a survey and look at what people say," said Cindy Cashen, the Alaska Highway Safety Office administrator, "but you've got to look at the results of impaired driving, and that's unfortunately the fatalities and serious injuries. And you're going to see that those numbers have not changed."

Statewide, the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has held steady from 2003 to 2009 at around 40 percent. Kenai and Soldotna have each seen only three of these in the past five years. The Kenai Peninsula as a whole, however, has witnessed 27 traffic fatalities involving a drunk driver from 2005 to 2009.

The city of Kenai has observed a trend similar to that of the state concerning its number of DUI arrests. In 2001 and 2002, the Kenai Police Department arrested 163 and 161 people for DUI, respectively. Since then, the number has plateaued at around 100 per year, with only 75 DUI arrests for 2010 thus far.

But again, with so many variables competing to impose their influence, the police department is skeptical about ascribing this decline to any one thing.

"Statistics are challenging to interpret," said Kenai Chief of Police Gus Sandahl. "I really don't know why it has dropped so much since 2001. It's hard to say."

Sgt. Scott McBride, the spokesman for the Kenai Police Department, has observed Kenai's trend of waning DUI arrests firsthand since he started working in the city almost two decades ago.

"I've been here 18 years, and when I started it was not uncommon for an officer to arrest two, sometimes three people a night for DUI," McBride said. "It's very uncommon now for an officer to arrest two drivers; I don't think any of the new officers have even come close to getting three."

"Back in the early '90s there seemed to be at a pretty high level of drunk drivers," he observed. "Then it really dropped down, and it's kind of maintained a lower level since then."

If he had to guess, McBride would speculate that shifting societal expectations and the availability of alcohol are two major dynamics contributing to diminishing DUI charges in the city of Kenai.

"I think it has to do partly because there were more bars in town years ago, and I think people just didn't think it was that big of a deal," McBride said. "Perceptions and social norms have changed a little bit, so now people recognize it's pretty dangerous to be drunk driving. So if someone else looks like they're going to leave a bar and drive, other people will tell them, 'Hey, no, wait a minute. You need to take a cab.'"

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services attributes the decline in DWIs statewide to several factors, including court programs that send first-time offenders to treatment programs, extra DUI enforcement on holidays, and mandatory BAC ignition locks for all DUI offenders.

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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