Despite spending millions of dollars in federal grant money for sobriety enforcement, fewer arrests are being made in Louisiana for drunk driving even as alcohol-related fatalities trend upward, according to state and federal data.
Impaired driving arrests statewide dropped by just over a fourth, from 31,004 to 22,860, between 2010 and 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.
Ken Trull, deputy director of the LHSC, suggested the decreasing number of arrests over that period shows that law enforcement efforts, like sobriety checkpoints and patrols, are deterring drunken driving.
“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing from law enforcement is people are using either designated drivers or they’re using alternative methods or they’re simply not drinking and driving,” Trull said.
But the declining number of arrests comes at the same time there’s been an uptick in the number of alcohol-related fatalities in Louisiana, albeit a slight one. And that’s happening despite spending about $9 million a year in federal grant money in recent years on sobriety enforcement.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates about 31 percent of the total 721 traffic fatalities in Louisiana in 2010 were alcohol related. In 2014, about 34 percent of the state’s 737 total traffic fatalities were alcohol related.
A recent LHSC report analyzing crash data attributed the increase to job growth and lower fuel prices during the time frame, leading to more drivers spending more time on the road.
Still, the rate of impaired driving fatalities has remained largely stagnant for the past two decades — both in Louisiana and nationwide — at a “stubbornly constant” rate of about one-third of all fatalities, according to the national traffic safety agency.
Trull attributed the unchanging rates to the slow-moving pace of changing cultural habits.
“You go back 20 years ago, a big part of the population didn’t even look at (impaired driving) as a crime. I’ll equate it to smoking: It took a while to get that cultural change underway,” Trull said.
Jarett Ambeau is a Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney who’s been critical of how the state enforces sober driving, noting the unchanging fatality rate. He takes issue with paying officers overtime to enforce roadway laws.
“That is a personal incentive that should not be involved in the decision to arrest someone on the side of the road,”Ambeau said.
Ambeau — who once operated a Facebook page that released the location of every Baton Rouge-area checkpoint — also said the low arrest rates in sobriety checkpoints do not make up for what he considers a “gross violation of our rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.”
“That’s a lot of burden on the public for what is essentially completely ineffective,” Ambeau said.
A three-year review of information from the Lafayette Police Department shows that more than 23,000 vehicles passed through 36 sobriety checkpoints during that time, but only 0.6 percent of drivers were arrested for breaking the law — or 146 people.
Trull said arrest rates don’t give a true indicative of the effectiveness of a checkpoint.
“By law, you have to publicize them,” he said. “And having that publicity, showing the enforcement effort, you actually have a deterrent factor there with checkpoints.”
In a 1990 decision in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz., the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sobriety checkpoints as constitutional. The court decided the interest in preventing drunken driving outweighs “the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped.”
After the court’s decision, Michigan still outlawed sobriety checkpoints according to its own constitution, and another 10 states have done the same.
Michigan’s alcohol-related fatal crash rate is an average of about 30 percent from 2010-14 — lower than Louisiana’s, even though the state has a higher percentage of adult and binge drinkers, according to 2011 calculations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a study released last year, researchers with Boston University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health concluded that in addition to impaired driving policies, policymakers should focus on reducing excessive drinking overall.
“More stringent policies likely reduce binge drinking, and reduced binge drinking could lower the number of alcohol-impaired persons who may engage in impaired driving,” the researchers wrote.
They found binge drinking to have a “hand-in-glove relationship” with impaired driving, with binge drinkers showing a higher likelihood to drive drunk; and they found a lower prevalence of binge-drinking is associated with stronger drinking-oriented policies — like high alcohol taxes, safe-serving laws and sales restrictions.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.