Griffin: DUI arrests, crashes drop across suburbs
The number of drunken driving arrests is dropping sharply across the suburbs, although local police say they're spending as much time on enforcement as ever.
The number of crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers also decreased sharply five years ago and have held steady ever since.
Does that mean the war on drunken driving is being won? And if so, should some of the funds being spent on those efforts be shifted elsewhere? The various camps involved in the issue -- law enforcement, lawyers and awareness groups -- have differing views.
DUI arrest totals last year in 79 suburbs were about half what they were in 2007, despite only a small drop in police staffing. There were 6,955 arrests last year, compared to 12,166 in 2007, according to annual state-funded surveys compiled by the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.
Meanwhile, those same suburbs in six counties reported 1,555 crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving in 2007, according to Illinois Department of Transportation crash reports. By 2009, that number was down to 1,012 alcohol-impaired crashes, and it has hovered near that mark ever since, with 1,065 crashes in 2014, the reports show.
What's driving the declines?
"It's the economy," said Don Ramsell, a Wheaton-based attorney who specializes in drunken driving defenses. "It's so obvious it's ridiculous. Alcohol is a feature of people's disposable income, and most people have a lot less of that these days.
"When people aren't making money, they aren't spending money."
Lake in the Hills Police Chief David Brey chalks up the decline in the number of arrests to "more and more people making a conscious effort to take a cab or have a designated driver."
The number of sworn officers dropped 4.4 percent in those 79 towns from 2007 to 2014, but many police chiefs said that didn't affect DUI enforcement.
"Our patrol numbers didn't change," Brey said. "There's not a difference in how we're doing things, but we've noticed a drop in the arrests, even with the extra campaigns we run."
Lake in the Hills arrested 86 drunken drivers last year after tallying more than 100 each year from 2007 through 2012, according to AAIM's reports. The number of alcohol-involved crashes has fluctuated from a high of 24 in 2009 to a low of six in 2013, according to the IDOT reports.
Carol Stream police are routinely one of AAIM's top arresting agencies. In 2008, officers made 604 DUI arrests. By last year, it was down to 352, even though the department had just as many officers on the street, according to AAIM's reports. There were 15 alcohol-related crashes in Carol Stream in 2008 and 13 in 2014.
Ramsell and AAIM Executive Director Rita Kreslin say lean budgets might have something to do with fewer DUI arrests. Both said police officers have told them they're under less pressure to make DUI arrests because of the time and expense of following up in court.
"The officers say it takes them off the street longer and their superiors want them out on the street," Kreslin said.
"There is less manpower and you've got to make a choice of where you're going to pool your resources."
Though arrest counts are down, grant funding for DUI enforcement hasn't slowed. IDOT distributed $3 million in the 2015 fiscal year for a variety of enforcement programs around the state, up from $2.5 million in fiscal year 2014, according to data compiled by the Illinois comptroller's office.
Most of the money distributed by IDOT for enforcement programs comes from federal agencies.
Kreslin said the drop in the number of arrests is good news because "the message has gotten out there," but she believes police should keep up enforcement efforts as long as there are crashes involving alcohol impairment.
"Unfortunately, there are people out there that think they can drive drunk and do it safely," she said. "The arrests are still happening, even though the numbers are down."
Brey said more places like Crystal Lake's Fire Bar & Grill are taking steps to reduce drunken driving arrests.
Nino Hermes, who co-owns Fire with his two brothers, said the establishment offers free bus rides to and from the bar, an idea he got from college town bars. The bus costs them about $500 to $1,000 a month.
"But it's a moving billboard," he said. "Our business is up about 27 percent and I can't think of anyone I know that's gotten a DUI coming from our place since we've had it."
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