Law enforcement officials say they expect to see an increase in the number of drunken drivers navigating Sedgwick County’s roads over the next couple of weeks, as thousands of people mix alcohol with their holiday celebrations.
Their message: Don’t forget to plan ahead.
“People that maybe aren’t normally out drinking, they may be at a party,” Wichita police Lt. Doug Nolte said. “They may be having a good time. And unfortunately, they get behind the wheel and drive.
“Much like you plan what you’re going to wear, plan how you’re going to move around.”
Choose a designated driver. Call a cab. Phone a friend, Nolte suggested.
“Planning ahead is always the successful component. If you are anticipating drinking, then anticipate that you’ll need to have a safe way home,” he said.
Local law enforcement officials don’t have any more special patrols targeting intoxicated drivers scheduled until 2013 – the sheriff’s office conducted a DUI saturation patrol Dec. 7-8 and police last weekend cancelled a two-day DUI check lane due to threat of rain – but the crackdown is expected to continue during regular patrols.
“We will be extra vigilant,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Troy Wells.
Annual DUI deaths
Nationwide, alcohol-related car crashes account for roughly 16,000 deaths annually, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol.
Last year, 72 of those people died on Kansas roads in DUI-related crashes, including 12 in Sedgwick County, the Kansas Department of Transportation reports. Another 1,523 people were injured.
In 2010, Sedgwick County’s DUI deaths spiked to 22, the highest total in recent years.
The numbers are staggering and preventable, authorities say, if people simply refuse to drink and then drive.
“When someone is unable to properly control the vehicle … you have a potentially 4,000-pound speeding projectile that can go out of control at any time,” said Nolte, spokesman for the Wichita Police Department. “They aren’t able to respond or react as quickly.”
Three Wichita intersections have been the site of 20 or more DUI-related accidents between 2004 and 2011, KDOT records show.
The highest frequency reported, 31, occurred at I-135 and Kellogg. I-235 and Kellogg had at least 29 and I-135 and Pawnee, 21.
Several others were the site of 10 or more, including I-135 and Harry with 15 and 12 each at Pawnee/Woodlawn and Kellogg/Webb.
Not surprisingly, officers tend to keep an eye on the county’s DUI hotspots during saturation patrols.
At least three crashes have occurred since 2004 at 47th Street South and Hydraulic, where Sedgwick County sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Collins asked a woman to step out of the truck she was driving on a chilly morning earlier this month.
The woman laughed and protested slightly when he gestured to a bright yellow stripe on the pavement.
“Take nine steps along this line,” he said, conducting further steps in a field sobriety test after she failed to track his finger with her eyes.
She stumbled through 10, then grinned.
Minutes later, she exhaled deeply into a palm-sized Breathalyzer, which measures alcohol concentration.
Her smile faltered.
“You’re over the legal limit,” Collins said. He snapped handcuffs on her wrists.
“You’re under arrest for DUI.”
Costs of DUI
Offenders face suspension of their driver’s licenses and jail time if their blood alcohol content measures 0.08 or higher (0.02 for age 21 or younger), according to the highway patrol.
They are also subject to hefty fines and court costs.
Upon conviction, a first DUI carries up to a $1,000 fine, plus court costs, and up to six months in jail, according to the highway patrol. Kansas law also requires an ignition interlock device on vehicles for first-time offenders for at least six months.
Subsequent charges bear harsher penalties.
But the financial aspects don’t stop there, Wells pointed out. Those with DUIs also face impound fees and increased auto insurance premiums and deductibles if their car is damaged in a crash – all steeper than the price of a taxi ride.
“Insurance rates are so high now. Why would you want to risk doubling or tripling your rates?” he said.
“Paying five or ten dollars’ worth of gas is a whole lot cheaper than thousands in increased insurance rates and court costs,” Wells said.
Wells said since Jan. 1, sheriff’s deputies have made 729 DUI arrests in Sedgwick County.
Similar statistics were not immediately available from the Wichita Police Department.
During the sheriff’s most recent DUI saturation patrol, Wells drove a loop around some of south-central Wichita’s major thoroughfares. Between quips about his family and talk of the sheriff’s office’s K-9 unit, his sharp eye scanned the nearly vacant streets.
The 25-year veteran of law enforcement searched for signs motorists were driving drunk.
Some jerk, swerve or speed, he explained.
Others drive erratically or with undue caution.
“After being out here a while, you can just tell,” he said.
Near the end of the four-hour patrol, Wells rolled up on an accident at Clifton and K-15, the site of at least two other DUI-related crashes since 2004, KDOT records show.
On the scene, one woman stumbled near a four-door sedan stuck in a steep ditch.
A second followed instructions delivered by sheriff’s Deputy Jason Greenlee, who conducted her sobriety test.
“They’re both drunk,” Wells said after briefly interviewing the first woman.
Within minutes, Greenlee snapped handcuffs on the driver’s wrists. Based on a breath test, her blood alcohol content registered 0.16, Wells said, twice the legal limit.
That night’s patrol yielded four arrests of motorists suspected of driving under the influence.
“It’s a slow night for us,” Wells explained, counting DUI apprehensions.
Each arrest is a success for the agency, though, he said, because it potentially means one more intoxicated driver is off Sedgwick County’s streets.
“Get just one off the street and how many lives did we save?” he asked. “You never know what they are going to hit.”