Drunk-driving awareness and enforcement efforts have increased exponentially in Lafayette, and officials say those endeavors are producing results. OWI arrests, which began skyrocketing toward the end of the last decade, have decreased in Lafayette over the past three years.
But challenges still abound. Innocent drivers are still dying in alcohol-related crashes, offenders with multiple OWIs are still getting behind the wheel, and even as the number of drunk drivers is decreasing, incidents involving drivers high on drugs are on the rise.
“It’s a public health issue,” Deputy Director Ken Trull, of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said, referring to the problem of impaired driving. And it’s an embedded cultural issue that Trull says needs to be addressed in the same way cigarette smoking has been addressed by society.
Although some adult smokers haven’t quit, Trull said, the number of young people who smoke is declining as advocates continue preaching the harms of tobacco products.
“A focus on young drivers is a good way to implement a cultural change, but cultural change is slow,” Trull said. “It’s incumbent upon us to continue delivering the message.”
It’s a message delivered seven nights a week by the Lafayette Police Department’s three-man Alcohol Traffic Action Campaign unit, or ATAC, in which an officer works a 12-hour night shift looking for impaired drivers.
When the unit was re-established in 2009 — it had been cut years before because of staffing issues — an average of 200 to 300 annual OWI arrests in Lafayette almost doubled, increasing each year thereafter until the number peaked at 1,202 arrests in 2011.
The arrest numbers have consistently been the highest among the state’s six other metro areas with 100,000 or more licensed drivers, according to the LSU Highway Safety Research Group — even when the number reduced to 744 in 2014.
“Impaired drivers are getting a little more difficult to find,” Lafayette police spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton said. “We feel the message is getting out there. People are seeking other means of transportation when they consume alcohol.”
But that’s not always the case. In the deaths of Jeanne Tatman, Brian Nolan and Carol Ann Richard, who were killed in Lafayette this year after crashes with suspected drunk drivers, two of the three men deemed responsible for those crashes already were convicted of prior OWIs.
And although the number of traffic fatalities on national, state and local levels is decreasing each year, about a third of those fatalities have consistently involved alcohol, according to three decades of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“I think we’ve done a good job of getting the drivers who do not have a substance issue not to be the driver when they’re drinking,” Lafayette City Court Judge Doug Saloom said of the statistics. “However, there are a number of people who have substance problems who are either incapable of heeding our warnings or don’t care.”
Kerri Cunningham, program director with Victory Addiction Recovery Center in Lafayette, said such drivers are incapable of taking note of the warnings against driving impaired because they lack the basic decision-making skills of those without substance abuse problems.
“Denial is a hallmark of chemical dependency,” Cunningham said. “So any judgment or decision-making regarding their substance use and abuse and their associated behaviors is going to be impaired.”
For example, people with alcohol addictions have a higher tolerance for drinking and might consume 12 beers in a sitting instead of just one or two.
“It will take more alcohol to achieve the same effect,” Cunningham said. “And paired with denial, they’ve just convinced themselves it’s not a problem.”
That’s why the 2014 rewrite of the state’s OWI law — sponsored by state Sen. Jonathan Perry with input from a committee led by Saloom — includes a recommendation to order a substance abuse assessment for people whose OWI arrests could be an indication of a greater problem.
Warning signs include exceptionally high levels of alcohol or other substances in the system during the arrest or a history of criminal behavior that might be related to a substance abuse issue, Saloom said.
The assessment will analyze that person’s substance use and determine the level of treatment best suited for that person, if any treatment is warranted.
“If there’s a problem, we address it. If there’s not a problem, then we know that it’s an intelligence thing,” Saloom explained. “We just have to train them about the potential problem that they’re starting to create.”
The assessments are something he’s implemented in his court years before the law was rewritten, prompting recognition from both the state and federal highway safety outfits for outstanding public service in his efforts.
The 15th Judicial Court also has begun taking measures in ordering treatment for offenders. Judge Thomas Duplantier’s “Sobriety Court” allows up to 20 nonviolent offenders convicted of third- and fourth-offense OWIs to plead guilty to their last arrests in exchange for a spot in his program.
Participants are required to wear alcohol-detection devices for 18 months, get home before 10 p.m., submit to drug tests twice a week, check in with their counselors once a week and participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or another support group regularly. They’re also required to visit a judge one night every two weeks for a progress report. Any slip-up means an automatic jail sentence.
Both Duplantier’s and Saloom’s courts mark the changing landscape of the criminal justice system, in which mental health and addictive disorders treatment is coming into focus as a more effective way to deal with offenders than jail.
“If you put an alcoholic in jail six months, they come out the same alcoholic they went in as,” Saloom said. “If we find a way to address their alcoholism as a misdemeanor offender, we have a better chance of addressing their problem.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825