DUI fatalities jump in first half of year

The number of fatal traffic accidents involving alcohol has skyrocketed in Wichita the first half of this year, nearly matching the total for the same period over the past three years combined.

Police officials have noticed, and they're troubled.

Nine people have died in 2010 as a result of DUI-related traffic accidents, which is only two less than were recorded in the first six months of 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined.

Put another way, the nine fatalities in the first half of this year is nearly half of the 20 DUI fatalities for the past three full years combined.

Reducing alcohol-related fatalities is "a priority for us as an organization," Police Chief Norman Williams said. "Nine DUI fatalities is a concern."

Officials have established a task force to look at ways to lower that number, said Lt. Joe Schroeder, who heads the department's accident follow-up unit.

They're also looking to work with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office and the Kansas Department of Transportation to improve communication and develop tactics for addressing the problem.

Ironically, the surge in DUI fatalities comes at the same time the number of DUI accidents have fallen.

There were 180 DUI-related accidents in Wichita in the first half of this year, compared to 254 for the same period last year and 201 in 2007.

DUI accidents have fallen in Sedgwick County as well. There were 22 in the first half of this year, compared to 42 over the same period in each of the past two years.

Two DUI fatalities have occurred in the county this year, with a third case awaiting autopsy results, Sheriff Bob Hinshaw said.

There was only one DUI fatality in the county last year.

"We're looking at every aspect," Schroeder said. "Are we manning the proper times of day? The times accidents occur? The locations?

"We're trying to identify trends."

Traffic sergeants in the city's four police bureaus actually noticed a trend of increased alcohol-related accidents last year, Schroeder said, and began ratcheting up enforcement.

DUI arrests are up nearly 7 percent over the same period last year, from 859 to 918, police statistics show. But there were only two alcohol-related fatalities in the first half of 2009.

"When you look at the numbers, we've been lucky," Schroeder said, "and maybe this year we haven't been as lucky."

Most DUI accidents occur between midnight and 5 a.m., he said.

"This can be attributed to the disproportional number of drivers who are returning home from parties and drinking establishments," he said.

Of the nine people who died, six were drivers who died in single-vehicle accidents.

"There's a level of accountability on that driver" who chooses to drive while under the influence, Williams said.

For six drivers, he said, "That accountability was deadly."

One driver, John C. Torres, was hurt in a crash in October and lingered for months before he died in January. His death counts toward the 2010 total.

Police are using Kansas Department of Transportation funds to pay for enhanced enforcement efforts such as DUI saturation patrols and check lanes.

Wichita police have conducted five DUI saturation patrols and one DUI check lane so far this year, and another is set for later this month.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office is working with the state to purchase a trailer "that has everything contained to do a checkpoint safely," Hinshaw said.

The Sheriff's Office conducts two checkpoints and six saturation patrols a year, as set by KDOT, Hinshaw said.

The new trailer will be used to conduct those checkpoints and patrols more efficiently, he said, and will be made available to other local law enforcement agencies as well.

National studies show that law enforcement only arrests about 1 percent of the drunken drivers on the road, Schroeder said, so arrests alone won't solve the problem.

Law enforcement officers are seeing more and more cases of drivers being under the influence of prescription drugs, Schroeder said. People are taking medications that caution against operating vehicles, yet they drive anyway.

"They relate DUI to alcohol, but it's also prescription drugs," he said.

Residents will play a critical role in reducing the threat that driving under the influence poses, he said.

They must not be afraid to take the keys from a friend or loved one who has had too much to drink — or call 911 if they see someone driving erratically.

"It's imperative that the public learns it's time to step up," Schroeder said. "Not only do we need to focus our efforts, but the community needs to come together and understand it's everyone's responsibility."