Fatal car crashes involving alcohol or drugs have increased steadily in Oklahoma City at the same time drunken driving arrests have dropped significantly.
The number of arrests for driving while intoxicated in Oklahoma City dropped from 3,459 in 2001 to 1,912 in 2011, according to department reports. Fatal accidents involving drunk or drugged drivers increased from 11 in 2004 — the earliest figures available — to 21 in 2011.
Police department spokesmen said several factors may contribute to that trend, but that personnel shortages at the department are affecting all aspects of proactive law enforcement, including investigating drivers suspected of being under the influence.
“It makes it harder to investigate cases, whether they're burglary cases or DUI cases — it just makes it hard to do everything,” Master Sgt. Gary Knight said.
The department stopped hosting recruiting academies from 2009-2011 and currently is about 100 shy of the 1,058 roster spots authorized by the city.
And that roster itself has only increased by a couple dozen officers over the last 25 years despite a more than 30 percent increase in city population, Capt. Dexter Nelson, another department spokesman, said.
Nelson said the officer shortages are because the city council won't authorize a budget that will pay for new recruits.
“It's frustrating to hear people say they want to be tough on crime, but yet we get no assistance,” he said.
Alcohol-related fatalities increased statewide from 149 in 2001 to 220 last year.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol citations for alcohol or drugs sank from 11,671 to 8,487 during the same 10 years, according to the safety office's annual “Crash Facts” report. Those figures, however, reflect citations issued beyond drinking and driving, such as possession of alcohol by minors or the transporting of an open container. There is no statewide data on arrests for driving while intoxicated.
The patrol made about 5,731 actual impaired driving arrests last year, said Garry Thomas, director of the safety office.
Drinking and driving laws in Oklahoma are on par with most other states in the nation, according to research compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In addition to meeting the national standard of a 0.08 blood alcohol content limit for drinking and driving, Oklahoma meets six of 11 deterrence measures recommended by the administration:
• Mandatory license revocations for those convicted of drunken driving.
• Legislation that allows for sobriety checkpoints.
• Stricter punishment for those caught driving with a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit.
• Programs that provide alternatives to traditional jail confinement.
• A 10-year “look-back period” when examining whether a person is a repeat offender.
• Specialized courts for people charged with driving while intoxicated.
Among the most significant deterrence measures Oklahoma lacks, according to the administration, are:
• Vehicle sanctions for offenders.
• Laws that require zero alcohol in a convicted driver's system for a certain period after being convicted.
• Elimination of programs that allow convicted drivers to wipe their court records clean.
Mother's Against Drunk Driving, a national advocacy group, ranks the state 34th in terms of preventing fatal accidents due to drinking and driving.
Loretta Denman, programs director for the group's Oklahoma wing, said lawmakers are culpable for the trend.
Legislation passed in 2011 requires ignition interlocks for all repeat offenders and first-time convicted drunken drivers with a blood alcohol content level of 0.15 or higher, but Denman said her organization pushed for it to include all convicted drunken drivers, 0.08 and above.
She said stiffer penalties, even for first-time offenders, will keep drunken drivers off the roads and highways.
“Some people don't believe that 0.08 is high enough to cause a crash when in fact it is,” she said. “Just because we take their license away doesn't mean it's going to stop.”
Noble McIntyre, a personal injury attorney in Oklahoma City, said teaching personal responsibility is more important than legislation, education and enforcement funding in curbing drinking and driving.
He said he believes the increased fatalities and decreased citations for driving intoxicated is because people intent on breaking the law now seek alternative routes home to avoid the police.
Forty percent of drinking and driving accidents in 2011 happened on dark, unlit roads, McIntyre said.
“They're taking two-lane roads instead of the highways,” he said.
“You can make all the laws in the world you want, but it starts with personal responsibility and until people fully understand the consequences of their actions they don't really care what the law is.”