Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Police agencies prepare for drunken-driver blitz

Alcohol-related traffic deaths rising

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Faced with an increasing number of DUI-related deaths, state officials and police in Butler County are launching new campaigns to get drunken drivers off the road.

The Ohio Department of Public Safety is giving more than $120,000 to 12 Butler County police agencies to step up DUI enforcement this holiday and beyond.

Butler County, which had the seventh-highest number of DUI crashes in Ohio last year, will launch its DUI task force Wednesday as thousands of holiday travelers hit the road. Law enforcement agencies statewide make extra efforts to enforce seat belt use and to prevent drinking and driving during the holidays.

Hamilton County, though listed as a "target" county by state officials because it ranked third in Ohio in DUI crashes last year, did not apply for the grant, sheriff's officials said. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office doesn't have staff for the crackdown, said Steve Barnett, sheriff's spokesman.

Meanwhile, the state has set up its own DUI task force to address the issue. Last year, the number of alcohol-related crash deaths in the state was 375, up 25 from 2000, although the number of alcohol-related crashes declined 18 percent to 16,795 from 20,583 in 2000.

Gov. Bob Taft signed an executive order Nov. 13 forming a 29-member statewide DUI task force that state officials hope to have up and running by early 2003. The group will study alcohol-related crashes and fatalities, outline ways to halt the increase and work with the Ohio Department of Public Safety to implement solutions such as developing a DUI data tracking system and adequate funding.

Neither the governor nor the lieutenant governor was available for comment Monday, their spokesmen said.

An announcement about the task force will be made once the members are appointed and meetings begin, said Col. Ken Morckel, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

"There is no better season to try to make an impact than right now," Col. Morckel said Monday. "You lose a loved one to either serious injury or death, it pretty much wipes out your holiday season. We are going to do our best to see that happens to as few people as possible."

Col. Morckel attributed the rise in Ohio's alcohol-related traffic deaths to an increase in underage drinking, noting that between the ages of 14 and 25, the leading cause of death is traffic accidents and a high percentage of those are DUI-related.

The numbers of alcohol-related deaths - and DUI arrests - are expected to rise again this year, he said, predicting that about 30,000 people would be arrested for DUI in Ohio by the end of 2002. The arrests normally top out at about 25,000.

"We need to immediately refocus our efforts toward the young people, and the things that kill most of our citizens," Col. Morckel said. "That still is traffic deaths, and a big part of those traffic deaths are DUIs."

The statewide task force is separate from the grants given to the five counties for enforcement blitzes: Trumbull, Butler, Montgomery, Cuyahoga and Portage. In Butler, a $127,473 grant will pay for overtime for the multiagency task force to conduct "saturation" patrols starting Wednesday and, likely by Memorial Day, DUI checkpoints.

In the past, Butler County law enforcement agencies have received state grant money for speed and alcohol enforcement. State officials encouraged the Butler County Chiefs of Police Association to endorse the task force to develop a countywide response.

The grants come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to be distributed to counties with the biggest alcohol-related traffic problems.

"We're trying to instill in drivers the idea that combining alcohol and a car is not acceptable. It's extremely dangerous," said Sgt. Barry Walker of the West Chester Police Department. "You're nine times more likely to be killed in a crash involving alcohol than in a crash that doesn't involve alcohol. We cannot allow this to continue and allow people to endanger other lives over their own."

In 2001 in Butler County there were 11 alcohol-related fatal crashes and 256 alcohol-related injury crashes, compared with four fatal crashes and 292 injury crashes in 2000, state crash records show. Butler County has had eight alcohol-related fatalities so far this year, according to the Butler County Coroner's Office.

Hamilton County's death rate has increased dramatically this year. Thirteen alcohol-related fatalities were recorded in 2001, but so far this year the toll is 22, according to the Hamilton County Coroner's Office.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, however, didn't apply for the grant because the agency is down in patrol manpower by 16 officers and doesn't have the resources to meet the grant's requirements, such as holding four checkpoints a year, Mr. Barnett said.

"We already are stretched thin," Mr. Barnett said. "We have to cover our beats and we're so short and we have people working so many hours now, if we were to take a grant and say we were going to put all these officers out there, we just couldn't cover our beats, which we have to do first."

Andrea Rehkamp, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Southwestern Ohio office, was dismayed at hearing that news.

"That's a real shame because I'm sure they have the staff people to respond to DUI fatalities," she said. "Most departments are pretty much stressed with their staff and stretched as thin as they can go, but they still need to increase their efforts. Drunk drivers are causing so much carnage on our roadways."

The Butler County Sheriff's Office, Ohio State Highway Patrol and Greater Hamilton Safety Council will announce the Butler blitz and grant today in a 9:15 a.m. press conference at the council's office at 840 High Street, downtown Hamilton. Other counties that received the grants, such as Montgomery County, are expected to announce their crackdowns Wednesday.

The Oxford Police Department, the agency that applied for the grant on behalf of the county, will help coordinate Butler County's task force. But Butler County won't see checkpoints until Memorial Day, said Oxford Police Lt. Bob Holzworth, because the various law enforcement agencies need more time to organize their efforts and analyze data of alcohol-related accidents and trends.

The grant allows for 1,480 hours of overtime for patrols, a minimum of four checkpoints and various administrative, equipment and training costs. About 160 patrol hours, or about 32 extra five-hour patrols, will be devoted to the Thanksgiving weekend.

While checkpoints are considered controversial because some law enforcement officials do not believe they are valuable and other people question their constitutionality, they are tools to send drivers a strong message, Sgt. Walker and MADD officials noted.

"We want drivers to think as they are drinking, `I might run into a checkpoint tonight,'" Sgt. Walker said.

E-mail jedwards@enquirer.com.

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