Drunken-driving rates fall, but experts say not by enough

  • Article by: LIBOR JANY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2014 - 12:18 AM

But 40 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had previous drunken-driving convictions, report says.

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In this file photo, Trooper Adam Flynn stopped a driver for following behind another vehicle too closely on I-35W. He then asked him to perform a field sobriety test, which he passed.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The number of drunken-driving incidents in Minnesota sunk to its lowest level in 20 years in 2013, a new report shows, with authorities giving credit to improved enforcement and changing attitudes about driving while impaired.

Law enforcement made 25,719 impaired-driving arrests statewide last year, down from a two-decade high of 41,951 in 2006, according to a report by the Department of Public Safety. Criminal convictions for impaired driving charges fell to 19,036, also a 20-year low.

Despite the decline, there were an average of 70 drunken driving arrests every day in Minnesota last year, and 40 percent of people at the wheel during a fatal crash had previously been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, according to the report.

“It’s obviously a problem,” State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske said. “Some don’t care about the consequences. Some struggle with chemical dependency and that contributes to the poor choice of ­getting behind the wheel when impaired.”

Minnesota also experienced a 2 percent decline in drunken-driving deaths for the year, and 2,300 people suffered injuries in alcohol-related crashes.

State law enforcement officials remain concerned that Minnesota’s numbers are not down enough.

“This low percentage decrease is disappointing considering the fact that traffic fatalities in Minnesota have decreased sharply during the past decade,” a recent government report said. “It indicates that traffic fatalities in Minnesota remain at epidemic levels — serving as a call to action for all motorists to buckle up, drive at safe speeds, pay attention, and never drive impaired.”

Of the 387 people who died last year in traffic crashes where at least some alcohol was involved, 81 were in crashes involving drivers who were legally drunk.

Of the state’s 4 million licensed motorists, the statistics show that one out of seven have a drunken driving conviction.

Tucked inside the study’s 69 pages was research showing that 20- to 34-year-olds, long considered the most at-risk to drive drunk, continue to account for the majority of impaired driving crashes, with 55 percent involved in such incidents.

The report found significant differences in drunken driving rates depending on location.

In Mahnomen County, 22 percent of all residents had a drunken driving conviction, the highest rate in the state. Just over 17 percent of Mille Lacs County residents had a DWI conviction.

Stevens County had the lowest rate in the state, where 7.7 percent of residents had an alcohol conviction. The lowest rates were generally in southern Minnesota.

Authorities attributed the variation to prevalence of chemical dependency problems in the population, intensity of enforcement and whether the country is a vacation or recreation destination.

Advocates say that the declining overall numbers show that Minnesota’s culture is changing. As baby boomers became drivers in the 1960s, about 60 percent of traffic deaths were blamed on drinking and driving. The numbers started coming down in the 1980s, the report said, in response to increased societal consciousness and “and to legislation and programs modeled in some part on the Scandinavian countries’ tough approach to drinking and driving.”

“There’s been so much press and lots of enforcement just for impaired driving. I mean people really got the message. Less people are driving drunk,” said Nancy Johnson, legislative liaison for Minnesotans for Safe Driving. “The cars are safer. [Emergency medical services] are faster. So some people who might have died in a crash 10 years ago might not now because they’ll be able to get to the hospital sooner.”

Johnson, who lost her daughter in a drunken-driving crash in 1984, said that nearly half of all fatal crashes then were alcohol-related. That figure has gone down considerably, she said, thanks to intensifying patrols and checkpoints, and better driver education.

Legislators also have hardened drunken-driving laws for the most serious offenders.

In 1997, the Legislature adopted tough new sanctions for drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 0.20 percent or higher.

Authorities charged 6,079 motorists for having a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.20 percent in 1998. Last year, the number dipped to 4,034, a 34 percent decline.

The issue came to light again earlier this week when a car driven by a man with a history of DWI convictions struck and critically injured a man in south Minneapolis.

Charges are expected against the driver, Kaleb J. Conway, whose criminal record includes underage driving and drinking and fourth-degree drunken driving.

“The problem seems to be with repeat offenders and perhaps we need to look at what we’re doing now and what we could be doing differently to address that demographic,” said Teresa Nelson, of the ACLU of Minnesota.

Authorities say they merely arrest and charge drunken motorists. From there, the justice system and the Legislature decide the fate of motorists’ driving privileges.

“From that point forward, it’s kind of out of our hands as far as what consequences they face and how long their driving privileges are taken away from them,” said Roeske.

 

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064

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