Cracking down on drunk drivers to save lives

In 2011, Minnesota state and local law enforcement stopped 29,257 motorists who were found to have been driving while intoxicated, including 592 in Wright County.
And, out of 72,117 crashes on all roads in the state last year, including 1,145 in the county, law enforcement reported 368 deaths (six in Wright County) including 136 where a driver had been using alcohol.
Since Minnesota lowered its blood alcohol content threshold to .08 in August 2006, down from .10, the annual totals for crashes and DWI arrests have never been as high as in 2007 when officers responded to 81,505 crashes and cited 38,744 drivers for DWI.
Wright County recorded more than three times as many traffic deaths in 2007 as last year, totaling 20 deaths in the county five years ago, with alcohol being cited as a factor in 10.
Late summer traditionally has been a time when officers have made greater numbers of DWI arrests in their normal course of patrol. They are preventing some of the most dangerous drivers from causing more tragedies. “Summertime, in general, is one of our deadliest seasons on the road,” said Nathan Bowie, state Office of Traffic Safety spokesman, in a recent interview. “Roads are clean, and people travel at faster speeds.”
Just as more motorists may be out now through Labor Day weekend, packing more fun into the final weeks of summer, many officers will spend more hours on patrol through the holiday to prevent any impaired drivers from causing harm to themselves or to others.
Participating local agencies put their patrols on overtime at certain times of the year, with those hours funded through grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as appropriated by the state OTS.
Those officers began their seasonal “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign Aug. 17 and will continue with overtime work through Labor Day. “Basically, this is the biggest statewide and nationwide DWI crackdown for the year,” Bowie said.
Last year’s 592 arrests for DWI in Wright County were down from 843 citations issued in 2007, though the number in 2011 was the highest since 2008, when county agencies stopped and cited 675 impaired drivers.
Capt. Dan Anselment from the Sheriff’s Office reports that though the county has not been part of the current overtime Toward Zero Deaths series of efforts, Wright County in partnership with police units from Annandale, Buffalo and Howard Lake has received federal and state approval for TZD funds to join in a new two-year program starting Oct. 1. Those agencies are awaiting consent from the county board and three city councils before scheduling hours.
Anselment said distracted driving – “texting while driving, or just generally not paying attention” – has become as big of an issue as drinking and driving.
He explained that the county plans which areas to patrol the most based on past accident data shared by the state. An agency must file a state accident report in the case of any injury or property damage greater than $1,000, he said, and the state records and follows that data and relays any trends back to the reporting agency.
The Sheriff’s Office does more work on its own. “We really analyze all crashes, specifically fatality crashes, that involve impaired driving or distracted driving,” Anselment said.
He added that his office joins with Wright County Public Health, the highway department, county EMTs and the nonprofit agency Safe Communities of Wright County on a fatality review committee that studies other factors which could have contributed to deadly crashes, of which there were six in 2011 and 63 over the five years starting with 2007. They consider overhead lighting and road engineering. Anselment said the rumble strips in the center of highways and on shoulders have been among the biggest improvements for safety.
“They’ve been extra effective in keeping people in those travel lanes,” the sheriff’s captain said. “We are extremely proactive,” he added.
Wright County and state agencies want all drivers to approach their late summer holiday plans proactively. “We encourage people to make smart decisions and avoid getting behind the wheel impaired,” said Bowie from the OTS. “There are so many safe options out there. There’s public transportation, there are cabs, there’s family if you need a safe ride. If you plan to be partying, plan ahead for a safe ride. That’s kind of our main message.”

By Paul Rignell