Impaired Driving Declined During Pandemic, Though Not Because People Are Drinking Less

DUI arrests by Washington state troopers dropped by 46 percent during the coronavirus pandemic. CREDIT: Washington Traffic Safety Commission
DUI arrests by Washington state troopers dropped by 46 percent during the coronavirus pandemic. CREDIT: Washington Traffic Safety Commission

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Impaired driving citations dropped sharply across Oregon and Washington this spring during the coronavirus pandemic. There are multiple possible explanations for the decline, but people drinking and using drugs less does not appear to be a likely one.

Driving under the influence arrests by the Washington State Patrol decreased 46% statewide during March, April and May of this year versus the same three months of 2019. The agency told public radio that its troopers made 2,110 DUI arrests as the pandemic unfolded, compared to 3,877 arrests last spring.

State Patrol Sgt. Darren Wright said the drop is significant, but not a cause to celebrate.

“When the pandemic was really starting and the stay-at-home order came into effect, we still had over 2,000 DUI arrests during that time,” Wright said in an interview. “That’s a really scary number for people that are supposed to be staying home and just be out there for essential travel and stuff.”

Citations and warnings for impaired driving issued by the Oregon State Police fell 13% during the first three months of the pandemic. The OSP online data dashboard showed 664 impaired driving cases statewide in March-May 2020 compared to 760 during that period last year.

In the Willamette Valley, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office experienced a 16% drop in DUI calls during March and April of this year versus last year. Data for May 2020 was not yet available.

Arrests drop after bars and taverns shutter

Some local sheriff’s departments recorded bigger drops. In Central Oregon, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office made 41 DUI arrests during March through May of this year, compared to 92 during the same period last year. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. William Bailey attributed the 55% decrease to business closures due to COVID-19 and people staying home.

COVID-19 restrictions affecting restaurants, bars and taverns and stay-at-home orders took effect in mid- to late March across Oregon and Washington. Hospitality businesses began reopening in late May as Pacific Northwest counties gradually relaxed their shutdowns.

Fewer low-level traffic stops due to COVID-19 exposure

Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett said the quartet of law enforcement agencies dispatched by RiverCom 911 in Wenatchee, Washington, saw a 69% decrease in DUI arrests during March through May 2020 compared to the average of the same period over the prior three years.

“Even though the argument could be made that these numbers initially decreased the first 2-4 weeks due to less traffic volume, I would argue that the greatest contributing factor is that agencies went to a reduced if not almost, no proactivity model in regards to traffic enforcement in order to minimize direct exposure with staff to the population at large,” Sheriff Burnett wrote in an email accompanying the data report.

Burnett explained in a follow up email that commanders instructed patrol deputies to protect themselves from coronavirus exposure by lessening contact with “lower level” violators, which is sometimes how drunk driving is detected once an officer questions a pulled-over driver. RiverCom dispatches calls for Chelan County deputies, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Wenatchee and East Wenatchee police departments.

Combined data from 32 highway locations monitored by the Washington State Department of Transportation showed traffic volumes bottomed out at the end of March, when highway traffic was 63% below the baseline. By the end of May, weekday traffic volumes recovered to within 19% of the baseline.

Alcohol and marijuana sales increased

The state director in Oregon for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Cate Duke, said all indications are that alcohol and drug use rose during the pandemic. Retail sales data show alcohol and marijuana flew off the shelves during the first months of the pandemic. So, less imbibing by the population was not a plausible explanation for the drop in DUI citations.

Even given the recent decrease in DUIs, Duke said impaired driving is “still a huge problem.” She mentioned being particularly saddened by a recent fatal head-on crash caused by a 21-year-old Junction City man, who remains behind bars facing charges of driving under the influence, assault and two counts of negligent homicide. The crash on Memorial Day weekend near Brownsville, Oregon, killed two teenage siblings and seriously injured a third. They were traveling home from a visit to a veterinarian when their Honda Pilot was struck by the heavily intoxicated driver of a Ford F-250 pickup.