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Highway 34 has been the scene of numerous drunken driving arrests and a fatal crash last winter caused by an inebriated driver. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Highway 34 continues to see fair share of drunk drivers

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The highway that bisects Hubbard County, where a deadly alcohol-related crash occurred last winter, continues to experience the pain of lessons unlearned.

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It sees its share of repeat drunken drivers - and sometimes more than its share.

If a highway has a heart, it was broken Jan. 21, when Robert McGrath veered across the centerline and killed a Hitterdal man. The head-on accident was caused after McGrath left a bar, inebriated. He'd had at least four prior DWI offenses. He's now serving a three-year prison term.

The road was Highway 34.

In recent Hubbard County Court cases, Highway 34 and County Road 36 seem to be magnets for repeat drunken drivers and occasional first-time offenders. Night or day, it doesn't matter. McGrath's accident occurred at 4 p.m. east of Park Rapids, although most arrests occur at night or after bars close.

"People leaving the city of Park Rapids, the city of Nevis, the city of Akeley leave along the 34 corridor, so for the most part you're going to have your state patrol, your city police and of course, the county routinely patrolling 34 because that's where the majority of the traffic goes," said Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer.

"And then that falls into, especially when it gets into the evening, that 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock time, the people who may have been drinking and driving," he said.

It's a dangerous highway, Homer acknowledged. It's no less dangerous than Highway 71, 64, 200 and 2. Law enforcement tends to gravitate to the main arteries because that's where the majority of calls come from, and those are the ways home from the bars.

These are the arrests just within the last six weeks in which defendants have appeared in court. More cases are pending:

n Ernest Dwayne Freeman of Park Rapids was pulled over on Highway 34 April 24 on suspicion of drunken driving. He had two prior DWI convictions, in 2005 and 2006, according to the criminal complaint.

n Louis Scott Nelson of Walker was pulled over on Highway 34 driving an off-road motorcycle April 28. He's charged with Third Degree DWI; he was previously convicted of DWI in 2004.

n Robert Thomas Rowe of Park Rapids was arrested on Highway 34 pulling a boat, allegedly speeding. Charged with second degree DWI, he was previously convicted of the same crimes in 2000 and 2002.

n Dennis Dale Borgquist of Elk River, arrested May 8 after allegedly weaving across the 34 centerline.

n Tony Joe Eadus of Fargo was stopped on Highway 34 May 2. He has five prior DWIs beginning in 2001.

n Two DWI arrests occurred in late April on County Road 36: Thomas Wilfred Leaper Jr., of Pine River and Brian Steven Makarrall, of Laporte. Leaper has previously been convicted of DWI in 2003; Makarrall in 2006.

"I don't know if we're concentrating on them, but we're just finding them," said Minnesota State Patrol officer Dion Pederson of repeat offenders traveling the main roadways.

"These repeat offenders we try time and time again and tell them to be smart," Homer said. "If you're gonna be drinking in excess, have a designated driver. Call somebody. Whatever the case may be. This will limit you as far as visiting the courts again.

"It's sad in a way and that is part of the reason our guys are out there and pay particular attention in high traffic areas," Homer said. "We want to make sure our roads are safe, that our guys are taking those who don't want to obey the law and get them off the roads."

Homer said it saddened law enforcement that the fatal crash took place during the daytime.

"It surprises us for people to have that much alcohol in their systems that early, but there are people out there that do," he said.

McGrath toxicology results showed he was twice the legal blood-alcohol limit at the time of the accident.

So, as summer traffic increases, and summer partying ratchets into full swing, so will the patrols.

And, if motorists continue to hit the road after they've hit the bars, the highway will continue to see heartache.

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