May 23 ē 11:07 AM

Drinking, driving on decline

Police still warn motorists to be wary on holiday

Handheld portable equipment police use for roadside testing.
December 29, 2010
TRI-CITY AREA — New Year's Eve has a reputation that isn't entirely fair.

There's probably no other single holiday that's associated with drunk driving more than the late night hours of Dec. 31 that meld into the early morning of January 1. Raising a toast with friends and family for the New Year is a long-standing tradition and thanks to beefed up police patrols, lots of inebriated drivers get caught behind the wheel. Still, local law enforcement officers concede that times have changed when it comes to impaired driving, mostly for the good.

"Drinking and driving is perceived as being irresponsible," St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon said.

"The standards are significantly lower than they used to be and I think that's changed people's outlook," he said of the state's .08 legal limit.

Nationally, the number of fatal accidents caused by alcohol has been on the decline. In 1982, 60 percent of traffic accidents resulted from drunk driving. Since 2006, that figures stood at 37 percent. In Michigan, fewer drunk driving arrests were made in 2009 compared to prior years.

According to 2009 statistics compiled by the Michigan State Police, no one in Lapeer County was killed by an impaired driver.

"Considering Lapeer County has a long and troublesome history with alcohol related tragedies it is refreshing from a law enforcement perspective that we have not had to investigate crashes where folks are either killed or seriously injured with any regularity," Lapeer County Undersheriff Bob Rapson said.

"However, that can change at a moment's notice."

The prior year, one person was killed in an alcohol-related crash in Lapeer County while three died from accidents involving both drugs and alcohol. Four were killed in 2007 and one in 2006.

St. Clair County's figures have remained fairly steady too. Last year, four alcohol-related fatalities were recorded, three in 2008, five in 2007 and five in 2006.

Capac Police Chief Rich Zavislak thinks other factors, like fewer road patrol officers, play a role in the declining statistics, especially arrests.

"There's just a lack of manpower in the state," he said.

Rapson also thinks the economy has an effect.

"I also suspect that the economy has played some role in as much as people may stay home and consume rather than hit the bars and then hit the ditch," he said.

Police credit stiffer laws as a good deterrent too. In October, Michigan's new 'high' blood alcohol content (BAC) law took effect. Drivers with a BAC of 0.17 or higher face enhanced penalties including more days in jail, more expensive fines and a longer license suspension than a typical drunk driving conviction. In 2011, the state will launch a pilot program requiring ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders.

Drivers will likely see more patrol cars on the streets this weekend thanks to the holiday, but police caution residents to not let their guard down the other 364 days of the year.

Donnellon said other holidays like St. Patrick's Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Eve keep his deputies busy.

"People are conscious of drunk driving around the holidays and thanks to the extra patrols we see more arrests but any given night of the week, just as many drunk drivers are out there and we don't always see them," Zavislak said.

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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