Fatalities caused by impaired drivers have been on the rise in Washington state since 2011. In 2015, they reached a 6 year high, with 258 deaths caused by drivers who had chosen to get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol, illicit substances, or prescription medication.
While deaths on our state’s roadways rose, arrests of suspected DUI drivers fell by one third. 34,256 DUI suspects were arrested in 2011, but by 2015, that number had fallen to 23,485. Of those arrests, roughly half were performed by the Washington State Patrol, while the rest were handled by local departments.
Law enforcement acknowledges gaps in coverage
Kyle Moore, speaking to reporters on behalf of the Washington State Patrol, explained that the plummeting arrest rate has to do with new challenges that the WSP is facing. Like many police departments around the state, the Washington State Patrol isn’t currently operating at full strength; they’re down approximately 15 to 20 percent of the number of troopers they need to fully police our state’s roadways. In 2015, as DUI deaths peaked, the Washington State Patrol acknowledged that they were having trouble recruiting and keeping troopers because the job was dangerous and the pay they could offer was much lower than other state law enforcement agencies. They have since managed to cut their losses after the state legislature approved pay increases, but haven’t entirely made up the deficit.
Aggressive defenses of charges by DUI defense attorneys have also changed the way that drivers suspected of operating their vehicles under the influence are processed. It used to take only one or two hours between the initial stop of a DUI suspect and the time that an officer could get back on the road. Now, police have to go through a lengthy legal process that includes obtaining a warrant for a blood draw and a visit to a hospital to test the subject before an arrest can be made.
This means that there are fewer state troopers available for DUI patrols on our state’s highways—and when troopers do spot an erratic driver, they have to consider the risk to public safety of taking so many hours off the road to put a single driver behind bars.
Adding to the problem, Washington state’s population is booming, especially in the populous area around the Puget Sound. That means there are more drivers on the road, even late at night—and public transportation, taxi services, and even rideshare services aren’t always able to keep up with demand around popular nightlife spots.
Washington’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana, as well as its ongoing opioid and heroin abuse epidemic, have also posed a challenge for law enforcement. Traditional breathalyzer tests cannot detect the presence of these drugs. Field sobriety tests can detect some signs of impairment, but officers are often left to rely on their own experience and judgement when they consider whether they should get a suspected DUI driver off the road.
Our DUI victims’ advocate weighs in
Mischelle Davis is our client relations manager at Davis Law Group, and she’s also a passionate advocate for the victims of drunk and drugged drivers. Each year, Davis Law Group represents dozens of victims who were seriously injured in a crash involving a drunk driver. Listening to our clients’ stories inspired Mischelle to become a prominent member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Speaking in an interview with KING5 News, Mischelle described her conversations with local police agencies about their struggles with how to handle DUI suspects. “Very often they’re being a little more lenient than they would have been in the past,” she said. “Instead they’re doing something like impounding somebody’s vehicle and sending them home in a cab as opposed to processing it as a DUI.”
This sort of slap on the wrist is unlikely to deter repeat offenders. Davis Law Group has seen many cases involving victims who were injured by drivers who had previous DUI arrests, or even DUI-related crashes, on their records.