The Independence Day holiday weekend is upon us. And although the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on large parties at public beaches and parks, alcohol plays a part in many gatherings and celebrations and the holiday is one of the deadliest on the nation’s highways.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 812 people died in crashes involving drunk drivers during the July 4 holiday period — defined as between 6 p.m. July 3 to 5:59 a.m. July 5 — from 2014-18.
In 2018 alone, 193 people died in motor vehicle crashes; 78, or 40% of those fatalities involved alcohol impairment, and 71% of those who died in alcohol-impaired crashes were in a crash involving at least one driver or motorcyclist with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15% or higher. That’s almost twice Hawaii’s legal threshold of 0.08% BAC for legal intoxication.
The closing of bars and restaurants the past few months resulted in a drastic reduction of DUI arrests from mid-March to early June. The week of June 8-14 was the first week since the week of March 9-15 that the Hawaii Police Department made more than 20 DUI arrests.
During the week of June 22-28, Big Island officers arrested 24 individuals for DUI. Three of those drivers were involved in collisions while one was younger than the legal drinking age of 21.
“The DUI numbers are starting to creep up again,” said Torey Keltner, program manager for Hawaii Police Department’s Traffic Services Division. “With the reopening of the economy, we’re starting to see driving behaviors that aren’t safe again. People are speeding and just not following basically traffic law, at times.”
Still, DUI arrests are down by almost a quarter so far this year, with 426 DUI arrests as of June 28 compared to 558 during the same period last year.
Fatalities are also down this year on the Big Island, with 10 through the end of June compared to 14 at this time last year, a decrease of 28.6%.
Police Chief Paul Ferreira placed a moratorium on DUI roadblocks after Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency March 4, but with the phased reopening of the economy, police have picked up their DUI enforcement efforts.
“We have been doing saturation patrols, where we have a number of officers assigned to a specific area and they do individual traffic stops,” Keltner said. “District commanders have particular areas that they’ve identified as high-crash areas … and there’s known high volumes of DUI violations. Often it’s a tributary into a particular area. The drivers usually get impaired somewhere else and end up in that particular area.
“So when the district commanders put the statistics together and identify it as an area of need, they’ll assign a higher density of officers there.”
Saturation patrols, just like DUI roadblocks, often involve calling in extra officers, with funds for overtime paid through a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grant.
“A roadblock is obviously a static location where vehicles will drive through there and the officers are conducting checks of vehicles, where the saturation patrols are moving through an area,” Keltner said. “Officers have to have a reasonable suspicion of a violation to stop a vehicle. And, as part of what they’re doing, they’re checking to make sure that people are not intoxicated, as well.
“We actually have been doing the saturation patrols since they’ve been approved by the chief. With the COVID-19 restrictions, there hasn’t been as much traffic on the roadways.”
Keltner said police urge the public to not drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, to have a sober designated driver or call a cab or ride-sharing service if need be.
And to the sober drivers on the road, Keltner offers this piece of advice: “Just slow down. Wear your seat belts. Drive with aloha and respect other people on the road. There’s nothing that’s worth the hurry we’re in that justifies taking someone’s life just to get someplace quicker.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.