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Holiday Task Forces And Interlocks Effective, But DUI Prevention Complicated

MADD's Kelley Dupps in front of a "victim board," showing victims of drunk driving in Arizona.
(Photo by Nick Blumberg-KJZZ)
MADD's Kelley Dupps in front of a "victim board," showing victims of drunk driving in Arizona.

During the winter holiday season, DUI prevention becomes a top priority for law enforcement. Over the past several years, Arizona has put into place increasingly severe punishments for drunken driving. Those measures have helped push down fatality rates, but stopping DUI can be complicated.

As of Monday, about 7,600 law enforcement officers statewide have participated in holiday DUI task forces that started the week of Thanksgiving. Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested.

"We don’t want to have the holidays marred by a tragic incident related to drinking and driving," said Sgt. Steven Carbajal with the Tempe Police Department’s vehicular crimes unit.

Carbajal said his department has participated in DUI task forces going back to the 1980s.

"We’re not making it a secret. We’re not hiding behind a tree waiting for you to come out. It’s well-publicized," said Carbajal. "At this point, everybody has the information, we’re being forthright about it. If you choose to drink and drive, you’re going to get arrested. It’s that simple."

Kelley Dupps is with the Arizona chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said that kind of law enforcement can be critical to spreading an anti-drunk driving message. 

"High-visibility law enforcement actions like deployments, task forces and checkpoints have a huge impact and, based on that one action of a task force or a checkpoint, can lower the DUIs in that community by 20 percent," said Dupps.

Arizona was one of the first states to make ignition interlocks mandatory for first-time DUI offenders. Those interlocks require drivers to blow into something like a breathalyzer before the car will start. MADD wants to see interlocks mandatory in all 50 states. Dupps said it is a fair punishment.

"What the interlock does is it allows offenders to go about their life, to be able to pick their kids up from school, to go to work, and to do all those things but to keep the rest of us safe," Dupps said. "We’ve also learned with the interlock that the recidivism rate is extremely low for folks coming back for that second or third offense."

But while interlocks are seen as effective, some experts said it is hard to pinpoint one piece of the enforcement puzzle that has pushed DUI rates down. University of Portland sociologist Bryan Rookey said one of the best methods to date was lowering the blood alcohol content limit from .1 to .08.

"When that law changed, it did correspond to a pretty substantial decrease in alcohol-related fatalities," Rookey said.

Rookey also said things like open-container laws, license suspensions and DUI checkpoints have pushed rates down, but he thinks law enforcement and lawmakers can do more, or do things better.

For example, Rookey said it is important to distinguish between someone convicted of their first DUI who has learned their lesson...

"And somebody who hasn’t and who’s at a great risk to reoffend, and then, apply the more severe sanctions, the ignition interlocks. And couple that with counseling and addiction treatment programs and jail time," said Rookey.

Last year, a little more than 10,000 people in the United States died in alcohol-related crashes. MADD said the rate in 1980 was about 45,000.

Rookey sees changing community standards as a big part of that. 

"It’s becoming more acceptable to intervene in a situation in which one of your friends or fellow-drinkers is planning to drive, and that opens the door for forms of informal social control that can prevent drunk driving without necessarily involving the police," he said.

Put more simply, Dupps calls it, "Surrounding ourselves with folks who help us make better decisions. Our goal is to have that next generation of designated drivers versus that next generation of drunk drivers."

Nick Blumberg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2014.