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New Year's Eve deaths, injuries on the decline, officials cite higher awareness

Statistics show a significant decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths and serious injuries during the New Year's Eve holiday in Minnesota. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The number of alcohol-related traffic deaths and serious injuries during the New Year's Eve holiday has dropped significantly in recent years, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety.

The statistics appear to indicate that revelers are doing the right thing on the holiday by planning ahead for a sober ride or staying at the party location.

"Awareness of DWI enforcement and New Year's Eve partiers making smart plans for sober rides home have made the holiday safer," said Jean Ryan, Office of Traffic Safety impaired driving coordinator in a news release. "It's important we carry the safe planning habit forward for all year long."

Many law enforcement agencies statewide will increase impaired driving patrols on New Year's Eve. Locally, officers from the Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office will be on patrol, seeking impaired drivers and hoping holiday revelers have learned to get a designated driver, according to Willmar Police Officer Marilee Dorn.

Dorn urges citizens to make the officers' jobs difficult, so they have a challenge finding people who are driving while impaired during the holiday weekend.

The threshold for DWI is 0.08 percent, but being a designated driver means not consuming any alcohol or mind-altering chemicals, Dorn reminds drivers.

"It doesn't mean that the least drunk person or the person who thinks they are the least drunk drives," she said.

The 10-year data, for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, released Friday by Department of Public Safety officials show no alcohol-related deaths on the New Year's holiday during the past two years.

The data also show 23 deaths between 2001 and 2006, with nine fatalities in alcohol-related crashes.

A total of 28 of 58 serious injury crashes were alcohol-related during the same time period. There were 1,552 impaired driving arrests during this period.

Between 2006 and 2011, the state recorded 13 deaths, with two alcohol-related fatalities, and 33 serious injury crashes, with nine involving alcohol, during the New Year's holiday.

There were 1,224 impaired driving arrests for the period of 2006 to 2010. The 2011 numbers were not available.

Citizens who are out and about this weekend are asked to report impaired driving as they see it happening on the roadways. Call 911 when witnessing behavior that could be drunken driving, Dorn says. That includes if you see a vehicle weaving, varying speed, making wide or short turns or crossing the center or fog lines. Those reporting should be prepared to tell the 911 dispatcher the location, direction of travel and license plate of the suspected vehicle.

The Department of Public Safety statistics also show there were 131 alcohol-related deaths in 2010 -- a record low -- and nearly 30,000 motorists were arrested for driving while impaired. One in seven Minnesota drivers has a driving while impaired conviction on record.

A DWI offense can result in loss of license for up to a year, thousands in costs and possible jail time. Stronger DWI sanctions are now in effect for all repeat DWI offenders, as well as for first-time DWI offenders with a 0.16 percent and above alcohol-concentration level. Under these sanctions, offenders must use ignition interlock -- a device that prevents driving if alcohol is detected -- for at least one year or face at least a year without driving privileges.