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Drugs, alcohol killers on the road

 
December 15, 2005

By ANSLEE WILLETT THE GAZETTE (Colorado Springs)

It’s an unwanted statistic: 71 percent of the deadly crashes in Colorado Springs this year have involved alcohol or drugs, the highest percentage in nearly a decade.

“We have a problem,” Colorado Springs police Sgt. Larry Morgan said Wednesday. “We’re making DUI arrests, but obviously we can’t catch them all.”

From 1996 to 2004, the number of deadly wrecks involving alcohol or drugs averaged about 44 percent each year, almost on par with the national average of about 41 percent, police said.

In 20 of the 28 fatal crashes in 2005, which killed 29 people, a driver or pedestrian was either drunk or high on drugs. Five of the 20 involved pedestrians, including one hit by a train.

“We’re well ahead of the national average, which is not a statistic we want to lead the country in,” Colorado Springs police detective Craig Simpson said.

Police couldn’t pinpoint why the percentage spiked this year. Concerned by the numbers, Simpson spearheaded a group to target drunken driving in El Paso and Teller counties.

The recently formed Pikes Peak Region DUI Task Force has members from every law enforcement agency in both counties.

The idea includes putting more cops on the streets, educating the community about the dangers of drunken driving and training officers on what to look for to spot impaired drivers.

“In the region, there’s enough of a problem we felt we needed to do something,” Colorado State Patrol Capt. Tom Wilcoxen said.

State troopers have seen a decrease in deadly crashes involving alcohol or drugs in El Paso and Teller counties, but the number of DUI arrests have gone up by 24 percent.

Between July 1 and Oct. 30, troopers investigated four deadly DUI wrecks, compared with 12 during the same period in 2004.

During the four-month period this year, troopers made 733 arrests for driving under the influence, compared with 592 during the same period in 2004.

“The fact that we made 733 arrests in the area is mind-boggling. That’s huge,” Wilcoxen said. “We need to educate the public on the fact that we do have a drinking and driving problem we need to address.”

Colorado Springs police also have arrested more people this year for DUI — 1,854 arrests were made through September, an 11 percent increase from the 1,658 arrests during the same period in 2004.

Police are frustrated that their message of don’t drink and drive isn’t getting across.

“Everybody knows not to drink and drive and yet, for some reason, people continue to do it. It’s kind of like it’s been socially accepted,” said Pam Van Overbeke, the state victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“Why are families letting people drink and drive? Why are people letting friends get behind the wheel drunk?”

Monday, the DUI task force began running a threeweek radio commercial with the slogan: “Drive hammered . . . get nailed.” The spots are narrated by Wilcoxen, 4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa and Colorado Springs police Chief Luis Velez.

The task force, which includes representatives from MADD and the nonprofit DRIVE SMART Colorado Springs, plans to air a television commercial with the same slogan.

This month, the task force began collecting DUI stats throughout the region to determine where extra enforcement is needed most.

One plan is pulling officers from several of the agencies for roving DUI patrols. Groups of several officers could set up for an hour at one location, then move to another.

The task force next meets Tuesday, when members hope to start outlining their agenda for 2006.

“Anything we can do to cut down on this problem needs to be done,” Van Overbeke said. “It has to stop.”

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0366 or

awillett@gazette.com