Impaired driving incidents on the rise

Kevin Behr

One of the side effects of drinking alcohol can be a false sense of indestructibility and clouded judgment.

Sometimes people assure themselves they are OK to get behind the wheel and drive home anyway.

This can be a dangerous practice, and according to statistics in the report “Minnesota Impaired Driving Facts 2005,” released earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, it’s on the rise – especially in young people.

From 2004 to 2005 the number of impaired driving incidents in the 18- to 29-year-old age group increased by 2,023 to a total of 18,184 cases.

The term “impaired driving” is inclusive of both the influence of alcohol or drugs, said Dennis Smith, an information officer with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. But the majority of the report is specific to drinking and driving, he said.

The increase in 2,000-plus cases seems dramatic, but the legal blood-alcohol driving limit was dropped from 0.1 percent to 0.08 on Aug. 1, 2005.

The lower limit gave police more chances to make arrests for five months of the year, said Jean Ryan, alcohol programs coordinator for the Office of Traffic Safety.

Of the more than 42,000 DWI arrests made last year in Minnesota, about 4,100 were made at the 0.08 to 0.09 percent range, Ryan said. Arrests in that range account for about 10 percent of all DWI arrests.

She said the increase in arrests can also be attributed to more funding, more enforcement and a focus in high-risk areas, such as Hennepin

County, where the most incidents occurred in 2005 with 7,541.

Within that county sits the University’s Minneapolis campus, where 184 people were arrested for DWI last year, said University Police Chief Greg Hestness. Since Jan. 1 of this year, 44 people have been arrested for DWI.

The consequences for drinking and driving can be huge, especially for students, Hestness said. After picking up a DWI, insurance costs will go through the roof, he said.

“Students are probably of an age where they’re in the high-risk insurance group to begin with,” he said. “DWI is almost the capital punishment of insurance costs.”

Besides the cost, students can lose their licenses and become pedestrians who wish they could drive, Hestness said.

It’s especially dangerous for drivers who drink and are under 21. Even the slightest trace of alcohol will cause their licenses to be suspended for 30 days, Ryan said. It jumps up to six months for a second offense, she said.

A DWI also lands on drivers’ permanent records and will never go away. And that could hinder students’ chances at getting a job later in life, Ryan said.

“There are employers that look at this,” she said. “And they don’t look kindly on a DWI arrest because it points to a certain behavior.”

Personal injury is probably the greatest risk in drinking and driving.

In 2005, there were 559 traffic deaths. Of those, 197, or 35 percent, were alcohol-related, according to the report.

“And what would be worse for a student?” Hestness asked rhetorically. “To get hurt, or hurt or kill somebody else? The guilt of ruining somebody else’s life could derail an academic career.”