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Go Ahead, Drive Drunk

A third more often

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As a responsible member of the media, I'm not supposed to tell you that if you drive drunk in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department territory, you're a third less likely to be caught than you were just two years ago. But then I thought, if the police aren't concerned about it, then maybe I shouldn't be either.

As the amount of territory CMPD covers and the number of people it serves expanded over the last two years, driving while impaired citations declined by 32 percent.

And there's something else people should know, a statistic the police department didn't include in its year-end report, one that city officials aren't talking about -- the number of alcohol-related wrecks in which someone died doubled from nine to 18 last year.

Maybe it's just coincidence that twice as many people died this year. Or maybe the fact that police nabbed 1,000 fewer people for DWI in 2003 than they did in 2001 had something to do with it.

Either way, the police department's explanation for what's going on here doesn't make a heck of lot of sense to me and I doubt it would make sense to the family of someone killed by a drunk driver, either.

Initially, Captain David Haggist, head of the Highway Interdiction Traffic Safety (HITS) department, assured me that the department's efforts to catch impaired drivers haven't decreased.

"We have done so much over the past year to improve the number of arrests," he told me. But Haggist either couldn't or wouldn't explain the 25 percent decline in citations last year, or the 10 percent decline the year before, despite being repeatedly asked about it.

Then, in the same conversation, he explained to me that sometimes the officers are literally going from one call to the next and never have an opportunity to do this type of work.

"As long as your efforts haven't decreased and you're doing everything in your power to keep those arrests high, if we end up making less arrests, we just make less arrests," he said. Then he asked me whether I was aware that although drunk driving arrests elsewhere in the state were up significantly, there were 80 more fatal vehicle crashes in North Carolina than the year before.

"Are you seeing my point?" he asked me.

"No, not if arrests are down here, but deaths are up," I told him.

"You're not seeing the bigger picture," he said.

No, apparently I'm not. In the bigger picture, Haggist explained, arrests aren't the only solution to this problem.

"We have to do a lot of things to educate our citizens and create that social moral that impaired driving is a bad thing and don't do that," he said. Of course, he also said that arrests are the only thing that will deter some people from driving drunk, so again, I'm at a loss. I guess we can only hope that officers have time for all the "education" in between calls.

And maybe it's not so bad, really, if you think about it from the city's point of view, which is that overall, fatal wrecks declined last year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg by 14 percent, from 63 to 54, a victory for Haggist's HITS department.

So even though the body count for those dispatched by drunk drivers doubled, there were fewer bodies from other kinds of wrecks, which means there were fewer bodies overall. If you're not picky about how these people were killed, and you're not a grieving family member, it's all good news, especially if you like to drink once in a while but can't spare the change for a cab.

The bigger picture, as I see it, is that the department can likely reduce the traffic fatality body count overall while making a third less effort to catch drunk drivers, which is bound to make the bean counters happy. And better yet, starting next spring, that might even help to free up the 80 police officers who will direct traffic at each of the 140 events the Bobcats will hold at the new uptown arena each year. Though the Bobcats will reap all the profits from the events, the city is providing traffic control for free to billionaire Bob Johnson, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $2.5 million a year. The city hasn't yet announced whether it will pull the officers off their regular beats or put more officers on duty on game and event days. Either way, we'll pay and the officers running from call to call, the ones who don't have time to hunt down drunk drivers, will just have to suck it up and work a little harder.

So feel free to booze it up at the new arena, or anywhere else, but remember this: Impaired driving is a bad thing, so don't do it, OK?

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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