Minnesota motorists appear to be getting the message that drinking and driving don't mix.
The annual late-summer enforcement campaign is yielding fewer drunken-driving arrests this year and the number of fatal crashes involving alcohol is continuing a five-year decline, state officials said Tuesday.
"People are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of impaired driving," said Doug Neville, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Over the past two weekends, 605 drunken drivers were arrested as part of a statewide DWI enforcement campaign. During a similar crackdown to close out last summer, there were 1,787 arrests over a three-weekend period culminating on Labor Day. This year's campaign will continue through Monday as well.
During this year's Fourth of July holiday period, which has traditionally been the most deadly time to travel state roads, there were no fatalities. On St. Patrick's Day, the second deadliest holiday for drivers, there were 246 arrests for drunken driving this year, a drop from the 286 arrested in 2011. The St. Patrick's Day results were especially significant because officials worried that there would be a spike this year due to the holiday falling on a Saturday.
In the past five years, drunken-driving deaths have declined 34 percent, from 170 in 2007 compared to 111 in 2011, according to state reports.
Officials have partly attributed the decline to the effectiveness of federally funded enhanced enforcement and education campaigns, which have included cheeky "Don't Be What You Drink" advertisements on television, billboards and the Internet. Another large part of the decline has been attributed to drivers making plans for sober rides.
"Yes, we are out there and we're trying to educate the public, but I think the public is starting to understand that they shouldn't take part in these kind of risky behaviors," Neville said.
Another possible factor in the decline could be that starting last July, repeat DWI offenders, as well as first-time offenders arrested at 0.16 and above alcohol-concentration level, must use an ignition interlock to regain driving privileges or face at least one year without a license. The device prevents a vehicle from starting if it detects alcohol after the driver blows into a tube. Offenders with three or more offenses are required to use an interlock for three to six years or permanently forfeit their license. More than 4,000 offenders currently use the device.
"There is no excuse for drunk driving, but far too often people find an excuse and find themselves in serious trouble," said Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol, in a statement. "Close out the end to summer safely by having a safe and sober ride arranged in advance of celebrating."
Nicole Norfleet 612-673-4495 Twitter: @stribnorfleet