In our opinion: Despite public awareness, DUI fatalities are rising

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

OGDEN -- The Utah Highway Patrol is investigating a crash involving an Ogden Police Officer early Sunday. UHP routinely investigates cases involving other jurisdictions. Currently, UHP has no further information to release beyond what Ogden City released Sunday. The driver of the black car, Richard Fernandez, 24, of Ogden, was arrested on investigation of DUI and booked into the Weber County Jail.

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With all of the legislative and public awareness efforts aimed at discouraging people from driving while intoxicated, it is surprising and discouraging to see the number of fatalities attributed to driving under the influence in Utah is up ?— substantially.

The annual DUI report to the Utah Legislature from the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice shows alcohol-related fatalities shot up 56 percent last year, while deaths associated with driving under the influence of drugs increased by about 15 percent. In total, 69 people died as a result of someone driving while impaired.

The report also shows that the number of total arrests for DUIs is down by 6 percent. It is hard to reconcile a trend that might suggest a lower rate of impaired driving with a trend that shows more people are dying as a result of it.

Barring any statistical anomaly, it's likely that both numbers are indicative of a less vigorous approach to enforcement of DUI laws by police agencies.

The Utah Highway Patrol suggests as much itself, saying the increase in fatalities may be tied in part to its decision to place more emphasis in recent years on enforcing seatbelt and speeding laws. The patrol says it will refocus efforts in hopes of reversing the trend, specifically by assigning more patrols to the late evening and early morning hours when intoxicated drivers are more likely to be on the road.

That is a fully appropriate reaction to the DUI report. But, as the president of the Utah Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers pointed out, this is not entirely a problem of law enforcement. "The deaths, first and foremost, belong to the drunks … the people who are driving impaired every day," Art Brown told the Deseret News.

It befuddles us to think after all of the public awareness campaigns and the uninterrupted parade of news reports on DUI-related mayhem, people still choose to get behind the wheel while knowing they are in a state that renders them incapable of safe driving. The recent statistics reaffirm the truth that the state cannot legislate personal responsibility.

But what the state can and should do is be unequivocally clear that such dangerous behavior will be under surveillance and addressed with meaningful punishment.

Among the most dismaying information in the report is the sizeable number of people arrested — about a third — who have previous DUI arrests. Eleven percent had three or more prior arrests. Certainly, people with a history of substance abuse deserve treatment and an opportunity for rehabilitation. But there should be zero tolerance for the kind of recidivism that happens after a convicted drunk driver is given and fails a second chance, or a third chance, or even a fourth.

In the wake of these sobering new numbers, the Highway Patrol's promise to review its enforcement priorities is commendable. The Legislature should receive the data as confirmation that alcohol control continues to be a major public health concern, as well as incentive to review and assess the statutes in place to combat the problem, particularly the high instance of repeat offenses.

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