Cass County alcohol levels 'alarming'
FARGO - Fargo police Officer Michelle Prouty says there's a reason so many drunken-driving arrests involve people intoxicated well past the legal limit.
"They're a lot easier for us to detect," she said.
Thanks to state statistics released Tuesday, safety advocates now have a better idea of just how many of those severely intoxicated drivers are on the roads - and the figures are "very alarming," one local official said.
The report from the state Department of Transportation's Drivers License Division shows that of the 1,265 arrests for DUI in Cass County last year, 635 drivers - more than half - had a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.18 percent or above, which is more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
Robyn Litke, coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition of the Red River Valley, said members believed people were getting the message about the dangers of drinking and driving. They hoped it might be reflected in lower BAC levels, "and we just did not see that, and it's very alarming," she said.
"I mean, any level of impairment is bad when you're driving, but these levels are just insane," she said.
The number of DUI arrests in Cass County dropped by 198 arrests from 2009 to 2010. But the percentage of DUI arrests with a BAC level of 0.18 or higher rose from 48.5 percent to 50.2 percent.
Among North Dakota's four most populous counties, Ward County had the highest percentage of DUI arrests with a BAC level of 0.18 or higher, at 56.7 percent. It was followed by Cass County at 50.2 percent, Grand Forks County at 44.8 percent and Burleigh County at 45 percent, according to DOT figures.
Litke said the entire community has a responsibility to address the issue, including liquor establishments. Fargo's Liquor Control Board has been discussing what role drink discounts may play in overconsumption and over-serving, but Litke said studying the issue will take some time.
"If it weren't happening, we probably wouldn't have the high numbers that we have. So, I think it's a communitywide problem, and that's just one factor in this big problem," she said.
Fargo businessman Randy Thorson said he sees a large cross-section of drinkers in his role as a partner in JL Beers, Borrowed Bucks, the Old Broadway and Wow the Bar.
"People drink at home. They drink before they come to the bars. They can drink when they're in the bars. We still find bottles and cans in our parking lots. So, it's really hard to tell where they're drinking and if there is overconsumption, where that's happening," he said.
Thorson said he believes customers are more conscientious about drinking and driving than in the past, pointing to the large number of cars still parked outside his establishments on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
"I don't think it's any different in the bars, that I've seen," he said. "Actually, I think people are more responsible than they've ever been."
Prouty, who works the day patrol shift, said impaired judgment becomes more obvious at higher BAC levels. She said she has seen drivers drinking out of bottles and smoking from bongs in broad daylight.
In one example from this week, Prouty said she was sitting in her patrol car at Seventh Avenue North and Broadway shortly before noon Monday when a vehicle on Broadway almost caused a major accident by turning left in front of oncoming traffic, "just completely oblivious that anything else was going on."
A preliminary breath test showed the driver's BAC level at 0.31, she said.
Prouty encouraged the public to report suspected drunken drivers and gather as much information as possible about their vehicles.
Litke said the coalition hopes the state statistics will improve in 2011 with new enforcement efforts and media campaigns.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol on Tuesday reported 31 alcohol-related traffic fatalities so far this year, compared with 37 during the same period last year, which Litke sees as a positive sign.
Regional DUI task forces began enforcement blitzes in October 2010, and earlier this month the state Department of Transportation launched a "Don't Forget TODD" campaign to encourage residents "TO Designate a Driver." The coalition continues to conduct victim impact panels for those arrested for DUI and hold mandatory training classes for bartenders and servers in the F-M area.
Still, Litke acknowledged the challenge of trying to change what she called a culture of drinking in the Upper Midwest, with North Dakota leading the way or near the top in several categories, including binge drinking and underage drinking.
"We're going to have to apply a lot of tools to try to get this turned around, and I think it's going to take awhile," she said.
North Dakota DUI counts for 2010
The chart below shows the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) levels of people arrested for drunken driving in North Dakota's four most populous counties last year, based on statistics from the state Department of Transportation's Drivers License Division. Under each county is listed the number of arrests in each BAC category followed by the percentage** of total arrests.
BAC level Burleigh County Cass County Grand Forks County Ward County
0.08 to 0.10 66 (8.8%) 69 (5.5%) 49 (8.4%) 49 (6.8%)
0.11 to 0.17 295 (37.7%) 420 (33.2%) 225 (38.6%) 206 (28.5%)
0.18 and over 352 (45.0%) 635 (50.2%) 261 (44.8%) 409 (56.7%)
Not on file* 70 (8.9%) 141 (11.1%) 48 (8.2%) 58 (8.0%
* Usually because of DUI test refusal.
** Percentages may not add up to 100.