Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Increase in California DUI Patrols triggers community awareness

A California Highway Patrol Commander explained an upcoming increase in patrol officers to county supervisors and updated them on his most recent statistics at the Tuesday, March 24, board meeting. He began by telling the supervisors, “We actually had a real good year last year.”

He went on to inform them of statistics for the year just ended. The commander said fatal collisions were down by 33 percent, total collisions were down by 5 percent, citations were down by 8 percent, verbal warnings were up by 5 percent, driving under the influence crashes were down by 37 percent and DUI arrests were up by 15 percent compared to the prior year.

The Commander said this amounted to more than 200 California DUI arrests, the highest ever for California's Quincy Area CHP.

He addressed concerns in the community that he thought circulated “every now and then” when people started asking about why there were so many highway patrolmen in this area compared to the number in other counties.

“First I would like to say that isn’t accurate. We do do business a little differently than maybe some other areas do but for like counties we are like personnel wise, staffed.”

The commander explained the trends in arrests and California DUI collisions have been increasing over the last 10 years.

He also said he was surprised to learn recently that the vast majority of California DUI incidents were occurring between 3 and 10 p.m.

The commander said this particularly concerned him because that was the time period when most people were on the roads, coming home from school or work.

He also said for the first quarter of last year 30 percent of California DUI crashes were from prescription medications. The commander said these two statistics caused the CHP to alter its shifts and how it did business, moving some of its priorities from late at night and early in the morning to peak hours and paying greater attention to its drug recognition program.

He added there were now three more people within his command who were “drug recognition experts,” focusing mainly on prescription medications. “So the contacts became a little bit different than what they traditionally were here.”

He said he did not have the numbers with him at the moment, but that the local CHP made more California drug driving arrests recently than ever before. “So at the same time that you see some of the increase in the sheriff’s department for drug related arrests we’re also seeing them on the highway.”

The Supervisor told the board many of the arrests have been for people with medical marijuana prescriptions who think that means they can drive while using.

He went on to say that, despite this fact, most of the arrests were from prescription medications.

The Supervisor said that in general these were not honest mistake cases, but situations where people abused prescription drugs or knowingly drove under the influence of them, against warning labels and doctors’ orders. He also said about 50 percent of those arrests came from calls from someone who knew the driver or witnessed the driver acting strangely.

The commander said this increase in drug related California DUI caused a change in CHP behavior. “Our contacts are sometimes a little bit different than what they have been traditionally in the past.

“People might feel that an officer is being rude to them when in actuality we’re looking for different things than what we were looking for a year and a half or two ago.

“We’re looking for indicators that maybe we weren’t a couple years ago.”

At this point Supervisor asked if California marijuana would impair someone’s driving similar to alcohol. The Supervisor replied that it could.

A person went on to say, “My youngest daughter is, she’ll be turning 50 next year, and this school in Portola, the teacher said, they were discussing marijuana, ‘it’s no worse than alcohol.’

“And this came up at our dinner table and I said ‘well you know from what I understand there’s like 50,000 fatalities in the United States every year from alcohol.’

“Now if it’s no worse than alcohol, if it’s equal to alcohol, and it’s legalized, then you’re now talking a possibility of a 100,000 rather than 50,000, so that’s where the discussion ended and she brought that up in school and was criticized by the teacher.”

Davis responded, “I would say people don’t know. Where [with] alcohol we have a determined standard, .08, marijuana we have not been able to come up with a, what we, what the courts agreed is the standard of what is under the influence or not. You also build up tolerances and such.

“For us and how we do our job is if we pull somebody over and let’s say we smell marijuana, we put them through field sobriety tests.

“If they pass those field sobriety tests, depending on how they were driving let’s say, but if they’re able to pass those field sobriety tests we would think they’re not in that case under the influence of alcohol.”

He continued, “I would say that we don’t have a clue how many people in the United States have been killed in motor vehicle accidents as a result of marijuana use. I don’t think we even have touched on that.”

The commander then supplied the supervisors with statistics for the first quarter of this year.

He said DUI arrests were up 60 percent, citations were down 14 percent, verbal warnings were up 50 percent and traffic collisions were down 40 percent compared to the first quarter of last year.

A Mr. Davis told the board there would be 24-hour patrol around Quincy this year.

Supervisor Robert Meacher asked why Portola, Chester and Greenville wouldn’t receive that as well.

Davis said he couldn’t get enough people. He explained he was getting five new people in Quincy, which would bring the total up to 16.

“And that’s what it would take, five people to go to 24?” Meacher asked.

“Yes because we’re on 12-hour shifts, so we have three people on, three people are off,” the commander replied.

Davis added he didn’t request this group of additional officers, saying, “The commissioner of the highway patrol was a little embarrassed that in the year 2009 we didn’t have 24-hour patrol on our state highways so he made a commitment to provide 24-hour patrol.

“He also is aware that now more than any time in rural counties, they need the help for assistance and he wants the state to be able to provide that assistance.”

He mentioned that Susanville and Trinity River were also making changes or receiving extra personnel to achieve 24-hour coverage.

The commander said the coverage would extend from Shady Rest on Highway 70 to the Graeagle/Blairsden turn.

He said the current Quincy Area staff consisted of 19 officers, three supervisors and four non-uniform personnel.

Davis said a lot of personnel were needed for 24-hour coverage because cars had to have two officers each for shifts after 10 p.m.

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