This holiday season, law enforcement across Washington state will be proactively checking the roadways for who’s naughty or nice. They’ll make lists, and judges will check them twice.
Why do we care? Our Olympic Peninsula community experiences an average of 11 deaths per year in traffic crashes. More than half of those involve impaired drivers, with cannabis and multiple-substance impairments on the rise.
Fortunately, the Montana State University Center for Health and Safety’s 2018 survey found that most people care: 83 percent of adults believe it is unacceptable to drive within two hours of consuming alcohol or cannabis. Also, 80 percent of adults in a situation to intervene take action to prevent impaired driving.
Tragedy is preventable; it begins with each one of us. For yourself, have a safety plan (sober driver or a place to stay). For others, be a friend — help someone who is impaired and about to drive make a safer alternative decision. If your intervention does not succeed, call 911 and we will try to intervene before tragedy strikes.
With these concerning trends as backdrop and with DUIs typically increasing during the holidays, local law enforcement on Dec. 15 began extra patrolling for impaired drivers. Participating local agencies include the Sequim Police Department, Port Angeles Police Department and Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.
A deadly year
2020 was one of the deadliest years in Washington state from driving under the influence (DUI)-related crashes, despite fewer drivers on the road, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC).
Preliminary data for 2021 also indicates an increase in deaths this year from DUIs. As Washington prepares to celebrate the holiday season, WTSC is calling on drivers to be sober and for everyone to intervene to prevent someone from driving impaired.
“Everyone can be a hero when it comes to saving a life from someone driving drunk or high,” said Mark Medalen, program manager at WTSC. “That means making a plan that doesn’t put you behind the wheel if you are drinking or using cannabis. Most people in Washington will also step in to protect lives by preventing someone else from driving impaired.”
Medalen said acceptable and effective interventions for impaired driving include calling 911 if you see someone on the road you suspect may be impaired.
“Seeing someone you think is driving drunk or high – and at risk for hurting themselves or others – is the definition of emergency,” said Medalen.
“If you encounter someone on the road who might be impaired, call 911 so law enforcement can step in and possibly prevent a crash. Your call could save someone’s life.”
Amber Muniz, a communications supervisor in the Wenatchee 911 center, relates a recent example of 911 calls getting an impaired driver off the road.
“In late August, we took three separate calls about a possible DUI,” Muniz said. “The driver nearly caused multiple collisions and ended up being booked for DUI by one of our troopers, and thankfully never killed anyone. It is always satisfying when callers are able to assist our troopers in getting DUI drivers stopped. It really feels like a job well done.”
If you call 911 to report a possible impaired driver, the dispatcher will ask for the make and model of the car, license plate number, route and direction, and, if possible, a description of the driver.
“The 911 dispatcher will ask for all the information you can provide,” Medalen said. “But never get too close or do anything that might put you in danger.”
WTSC statistics show that 2020 had the highest number of polydrug drivers in fatal crashes in state history. Polydrug drivers are those impaired by more than one substance, usually alcohol and cannabis. And despite fewer drivers being on the road during the pandemic shutdown, 2020 saw the highest number of DUI- involved in fatal crashes, overall, since 2006.
Preliminary data for 2021 indicate the trend may be continuing, with August of this year the deadliest on Washington’s roads since 1997.
“With holiday parties and travel, December can see an increase in impaired driving – but not if we insist on sober driving and taking steps to prevent it,” Medalen said.
“Recent trends are concerning, but we have hope we can turn things around. We know that when it comes to stopping someone from driving impaired, most people in Washington will do the right thing.”
Inspector Josh Ley is Target Zero Manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission-Region 1.