One bright side to pandemic: Fewer drunken drivers

  • FERREIRA

Gov. David Ige’s stay-at-home order issued on March 25 because of the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by five weeks of single-digit drunken driving arrests on the Big Island.

The 31 DUI arrests made by Hawaii Police Department officers between March 23 and April 26 were the fewest for a five-week period in more than a decade.

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In past two weeks, however, drunken driving arrests have risen to double digits, with 11 between April 27 and May 3, and 14 between May 4-11.

“Traffic has increased on the highway. We’ve noticed it,” Hawaii Police Chief Paul Ferreira said last week. “Even during the workday, you notice more cars on the road now. Or you go out during lunch, and there’s more vehicles on the road.”

Ferreira said the increased traffic was particularly noticeable on May 8, when nonessential businesses deemed “low risk” were allowed to reopen, provided they follow sanitation and social distancing procedures.

As for DUI arrests, the dropoff in numbers was precipitous in the latter part of March.

During the week of March 9-15, police made 25 DUI arrests. The next week, March 16-22 — prior to the stay-at-home order but after the public became aware of the pandemic — there were only 13 DUI arrests, a dozen fewer than the previous week.

Then, between March 23-29, the week the governor told nonessential workers to stay at home, police made only three DUI arrests.

“That can be attributed to all the bars that are shut down, (and) all the restaurants that are serving liquor are shut down,” Ferreira told the Tribune-Herald on March 31. “So technically, there shouldn’t be any DUIs on the road.”

The next four weeks had, respectively, five, seven, seven and nine DUI arrests before drunken driver apprehensions crept back into double digits as April ended and May began.

Bars remain closed, and restaurants are allowed to operate only on a take-out or delivery basis, but Ferreira said his patrol commanders report “nothing out of the ordinary” in the gradual uptick in DUI arrests. And even though the stay-at-home order technically remains in effect through the end of the month, Ige is now ending his press conferences by emphasizing “safer at home” instead of “stay at home.”

Ferreira said officers still perform traffic enforcement duties and make DUI arrests, but the department hasn’t re-established DUI roadblocks.

“The primary reason is we want to make sure that everyone’s safe,” he said. “To do a DUI roadblock, to get probable cause, you’ve got to get up in somebody’s face. You’ve got to be able to detect the odor of alcohol or you’ve got to notice the signs. So you’ve got to be in real close proximity with the driver.

“It kind of defeats the purpose of social distancing.”

According to the chief, officers are still doing checkpoints to ensure drivers wear their seat belts and stay off cellphones and other electronic devices while driving, and cite those not in compliance.

“We have grants for those projects, and we still do that because it doesn’t require a roadblock, per se,” Ferreira said. “But we will be establishing DUI roadblocks as soon as we can, as soon as we feel it will be safe for our officers as well as for the community.

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“Even with all the numbers of the COVID virus being low, it’s still out there. It hasn’t gone away; we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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