A Drop in DUIs
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:27 PM
"Last year, law enforcement officers prowling the roads of Whidbey Island made 120 fewer drinking and driving-related arrests compared to the year before.The same year, some tough new DUI laws went into effect.Local law and justice officials question whether there is a direct correlation between the two. They say any number of factors - from police staffing levels to education - may have caused the dip in arrests.The statistics are clear. In 1999, there was a 20 percent decrease in DUI arrests in Oak Harbor and Island County compared to the year before.The decrease in drinking and driving arrests is reported across the board by the State Patrol contingent stationed on Whidbey Island, the Oak Harbor Police and the Island County Sheriff's Department. According to the Oak Harbor Municipal Court and Island County District Court, a total of 608 DUI cases were filed in 1998 and only 488 in 1999.BETTER EDUCATION?The statistics are also contrary to expectations. State Patrol Trooper Tom Foster at the Office of Government and Media Relations said many experts predicted that DUI arrests could climb after the Legislature lowered the maximum legal blood alcohol content from 0.10 to 0.08 last year.But the opposite is true. Statewide, the State Patrol made a little over 2 percent fewer DUI arrests last year than in 1998. Foster said that the small drop may be just a normal fluctuation, or it could be due to an increase in awareness brought on by media coverage of the new 0.08 law.But why has Island County seen a decrease in arrests 10 times greater than the state average?Scott Wernecke, a local state trooper, said he hopes the decrease is because local people are getting the message out. He said the State Patrol and other local departments have been hitting the message hard at the Navy base, in local schools, and with a variety of groups through mock DUI accidents, speeches and assemblies.Rick Norrie, the traffic safety officer for the Island County Sheriff's Department, also said he hopes the decrease means that educational programs for the young are working locally.Norrie said that Island County has historically had a problem with drinking and driving, with a higher-than-average ratio of DUI arrests for its population level. He said the message seems to be getting across in the north end, especially at the Navy base, while the south end is still learning.FEWER OFFICERS?In Oak Harbor, however, Police Chief Tony Barge said the department's 19 percent drop in DUI arrests in 1999 compared to 1998 is probably due entirely to a shortage of officers.In the beginning of 1999, Barge said the department had four of its 30 officers at the state academy. After graduating, each new officers had to spend 12 weeks driving with seasoned officers. The two-officer teams focused on 911 calls instead of patrolling for DUIs, thereby taking a total of eight officers off the streets. Then in the summer, one officer was on administrative leave while another probation officer was dismissed.In fact, the department is still three officers short, Barge said, and a fourth officer will likely take a job in another city.Barge said he doubts there were any fewer drunks on the road in 1999. Similarly, Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said the decrease in arrests from his department is likely due to staffing levels. He said that 911 calls have increased by 20 percent over the last four years while staffing levels remained constant.Unfortunately DUI patrols have been put on the back burner to handle in-progress calls, Hawley said.On the other hand, the State Patrol had normal staffing levels last year. Wernecke said the decrease has been significant and noticeable to local troopers on the road.Island County District Judge Peter Strow said it's impossible to know for sure why there were fewer arrests, but he guesses that it could be that people are leery of the new laws.Beyond lowering the blood alcohol content limit to 0.08, the new laws require a court appearance within 24 hours of a DUI arrest, increased license suspension periods, mandatory ignition interlocks, a limit of one deferred prosecution a lifetime, and car impoundment.The 1999 laws follow a trend, Strow said. The legislature has been gradually making the DUI laws stricter for years, including toughening mandatory minimum sentences.Maybe people are starting to realize it's a really serious crime, Strow said."