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An in-depth look at DUIs in Washington

by JULIE SUMMERS

Special to the Sounder

Alcohol-related traffic accidents in the U.S. have steadily decreased over the past five years, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that alcohol is still a factor in nearly one-third of traffic fatalities.

According to San Juan County Sheriff Rob Nou,  nationally, there is a disturbing trend of not only driving while intoxicated by alcohol, but under the influence of multiple substances.

DUI applies to driving under the influence of alcohol, but also under the influence of drugs – both prescription and illegal substances.

“It’s basically chemical soup motoring down the road,” Nou said.

According to Washington State Department of Transportation annual collision reports, the total number of collisions in San Juan County has decreased in recent years, from 124 in 2006 to 97 in 2010. However, the number of alcohol-related incidents remained fairly steady, ranging from 22 to 27 annually. Statistics for 2011 show a significant decrease from previous years, with just 11 alcohol-involved incidents. Nou cautioned that this isn’t necessarily indicative of the situation improving, but shows that officers have been doing a better job of catching DUIs in motion as opposed to after impaired drivers crash a vehicle.

This year, there have been at least 21 reported instances of DUI in San Juan County – 12  on San Juan, six on Orcas, and three on Lopez, numbers that Nou said are pretty much proportionate to each island’s population.

In Washington state, 37 percent of traffic fatalities are alcohol-related, one of the highest percentages in the nation. But Shelly Baldwin, Impaired Driving Program manager at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said this statistic is deceiving.

“In Washington, we’ve had a lot of reductions in other types of traffic fatalities,” she said, noting that Washington has the highest rate of seat belt use in the nation.

Because of these reductions, Baldwin added, the prevalence of alcohol-impaired incidents appears higher.

While the problem of DUI is just as present in San Juan County as in other parts of the state, Nou said island law enforcement officers face unique logistical challenges due to the nature of the island community. Because dealing with DUIs is a technical, labor-intensive, and time-consuming process, each incident takes an officer off the street for a significant amount of time and can hinder the ability for officers to be out in the community detecting other DUIs or dealing with incidents.

Boating under the influence is also a concern in a maritime county like San Juan, said Nou. Local officers work with enforcement agencies on the water, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, to deal with this problem.

Prosecuting DUIs

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said everyone arrested for DUI is required to make a next-day appearance at court in Friday Harbor.

After a public defender is appointed, the defendant enters a plea. If a case is not resolved through pleas, it goes to trial. If the defendant admits to having a drinking problem and wants to receive counseling and treatment, he or she may be eligible for deferred prosecution, which defers charges for a period of time. There are guidelines dictating a range of sentencing for various DUI circumstances, said Gaylord.

Repeat offenders and drivers with higher levels of intoxication are subject to stiffer penalties.

The cold weather factor

Alcohol-related traffic accidents increase significantly throughout the nation during the winter, but Baldwin said Washington doesn’t follow the trend.

“Nice weather seems to be a major factor, because the worst months [for impaired driving] here in Washington are actually July and August,” she said.

Georgeana Cook, coordinator of the Lopez Island Prevention Coalition, said a fact to look at is that San Juan County has the highest per capita number of liquor licenses in Washington state.

“Being a tourist community accounts for part of it,” she said. “But higher accessibility is always a concern.”

Cook also stressed the challenges of the winter season, noting that drinking at holiday parties is “a social thing for a lot of people” but can be dangerous when people don’t realize how much alcohol they’ve consumed.

It’s important to provide alternatives that model healthy socialization and celebration, said Cynthia Stark-Wickman, coordinator of the San Juan Island Prevention Coalition.

Looking ahead

The issue of impaired driving, and the state and local response to it, continues to evolve. With the recent passages of I-1183 and I-502, privatizing liquor sales and legalizing recreational marijuana use, the future of these issues and how they will affect communities remains uncertain. Over time, said Baldwin, research may be able to identify the impact these two laws have on impaired driving.

However, she said, such laws don’t have much impact on impaired driving prosecution.

“It’s illegal to drive impaired regardless of why you’re impaired,” Baldwin said.

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