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Published March 05 2012

Fargo police chief: All options will be explored to reduce DUI rates

FARGO – “It baffles me.”

“We’re fed up.”

“Enough is enough.”

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes has uttered those candid phrases in recent weeks to describe what he sees as a drunken driving problem headed in the wrong direction.

But in a recent interview, the chief acknowledged it will take more than tough words to rein in impaired driving and lower the number of DUI arrests in Fargo, which hit a record 1,127 last year and is on pace for another record this year.

Fargo police made 187 DUI arrests through Feb. 28 of this year, nine more than during the first two months of 2011.

Beth Maher of Dilworth agrees there’s no excuse for drinking and driving. But the 31-year-old pursuing a doctorate at North Dakota State University believes a big part of the problem in Fargo-Moorhead is the unavailability of taxicabs.

“I can think of several occasions where we have stood outside of bars downtown waiting for up to two hours in the rain to get taxicabs, while many others wait as well,” Maher said. “I think people get fed up with waiting and decide to drive.”

What some people may see as obvious solutions – more taxicabs or buses available at closing time – gives Ternes pause.

“Those things are not bad ideas,” he said, adding they may help lower drunken driving rates. “But I think there’s a half-step in front of that that really is centered on personal responsibility.”

In the coming months, Ternes said, police will explore all means of discouraging tipsy drivers from climbing behind the wheel, from roving sobriety checkpoints to stiffer DUI penalties to a harsher public message.

“There’s no immediate answer for us,” he said.

Success will be considered a lower number of alcohol-related fatalities, injury accidents and DUI arrests, and it will likely come through a combination of new and innovative measures “that really capture the community’s attention,” Ternes said.

Not enough taxis?

Like Ternes, Doyle’s Yellow Checker Cab manager Jim Peinovich often hears complaints about the lack of available taxis at bar closing time, which is 2 a.m. in the metro area.

“Logically, think about this now: We’ll take 1,000 people to the bar throughout the night,” Peinovich said. “When do you think they all call?”

To handle the crunch at closing time, Doyle’s doubles its fleet on Friday and Saturday nights, from 25 to 50, and strategically places cabs in high-demand areas such as downtown and The Hub on 25th Street, he said.

Still, there aren’t enough cabs to serve everyone at the same time.

“There is a problem – always going to be a problem – in every city in the nation,” Peinovich said.

Doyle’s cab drivers work regular 10-hour shifts on weekend nights, Peinovich said. Staffing extra drivers for a three-hour window just to handle the bar rush isn’t realistic from a hiring standpoint, he said.

Ternes called complaints about the perceived lack of taxicabs at bar close “incredibly short-sighted.” Drinkers should give more thought to how they’re going to get home before they go out, he said.

“Why should it be somebody else’s responsibility to deal with my irresponsibility at 2 o’clock in the morning?” he said.

Ternes said he credits those with sense enough to call a cab and not drive when intoxicated. But in the same breath, he points to New Year’s Eve, a night when drunken driving has become far less prevalent as people arrange rides to avoid well-publicized law enforcement blitzes.

“It baffles me as to why the other 364 days out of the year, that sense of responsibility gets lost,” he said.

Bus ‘a mixed message’

Metro Area Transit bus routes end at 10:15 p.m., leaving the late-night bar crowd with one less transportation option.

Lori Van Beek, transit manager for MATBUS, said one recommendation in its five-year plan adopted late last year is extending night service. But it maybe would be by only an hour at first, and it’s unlikely routes will ever run until 2 a.m., she said.

“Everything, of course, is dependent on money,” she said.

Metro buses probably aren’t a good solution for transporting intoxicated bar patrons anyway, Van Beek said.

“Part of the problem with bars is you’re taking home people who aren’t in any condition to ride on a bus, and if they’ve never ridden on a bus before, they’re not going to know how to do it,” she said, noting that MATBUS has 25 routes. “You have to know which bus to get on, and they’re not thinking if they’re out there drinking.”

However, at least one city has figured out how to make bus service work for the bar crowd.

Iowa State University, its students and the city of Ames jointly fund the Moonlight Express, a shuttle bus service that offers free rides when regular service ends Friday and Saturday nights.

The shuttles run from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., taking students to and from downtown, campus, west and southeast Ames and even door-to-door in areas of the city not covered by shuttle routes, according to the city’s website.

In 2010-11, the Moonlight Express carried 66,904 passengers and cost the funding partners a total of $82,419, or about $1,500 per night, city figures show.

Laura Oster-Aaland, director of orientation and student success at NDSU, said the idea of such a shuttle bus service “comes up from time to time in different groups,” but there are no plans to start one at NDSU.

“I think it’s really unclear to people if that would solve the issue,” she said, adding that there are more risks to overconsumption than just driving drunk.

“I would rather work on, as a community, helping students arrange designated drivers, helping them understand how to keep their blood-alcohol content lower so that they don’t get into those situations,” she said.

Safe and accessible transportation is part of the solution, but a shuttle bus would likely be high-cost and high-risk, Oster-Aaland said. A lot of schools that had such services have discontinued them for liability reasons, she said.

“It’s a mixed message, as well,” she said. “It’s saying that we know that this is just how college students are going to drink. ... But it’s not going to change anything in our environment, and so we’d really rather work toward change.”

To help fill the gap in late-night bus service, NDSU student government contracts with Doyle Cab to give students a 50 percent discount on rides between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., as long as the students pick up a sticker each year to put on their ID to prove they’re an eligible student.

The “Herd Hauler” reduced fare program is incentive for students to think ahead when they go out, Oster-Aaland said

A similar program is in place for Concordia College students, Peinovich said.

“I think it has helped the DUI situation tremendously,” he said.

College students don’t account for a majority of DUI arrests, Ternes said. The average age of those arrested for DUI in the last two months in Fargo was slightly above 30 years old.

Sobriety checkpoints

Since October 2004, Fargo police have staged 53 sobriety checkpoints – about seven per year – resulting in 162 DUI arrests.

Ternes said it’s fair for the public to question the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints if DUI rates haven’t fallen.

For checkpoints to be the deterrent they’re intended to be, they may have to become mobile, he said. Police announce checkpoints in advance, but don’t disclose their location. Word-of-mouth spreads quickly from bar to bar once a checkpoint is set up, making it easier for drivers to avoid it, Ternes said.

A mobile checkpoint would pop up on multiple streets throughout the night, keeping drivers guessing – and hopefully thinking twice about driving drunk, Ternes said.

More frequent checkpoints also could help, but the drain on officers’ time and the expense are challenges, especially given cutbacks in state and federal grants that fund such efforts, Ternes said.

Changing the message

Ternes said that while the Police Department put additional emphasis on DUI enforcement over the last five years, it took no extraordinary measures in 2011 – such as additional patrol blitzes or sobriety checkpoints – to account for the record number of DUI arrests last year.

“There was nothing special about 2011 in terms of our attention to that issue,” he said.

That could change.

“In my mind, we have to do something different that resonates with people to address the issue,” he said.

It’ll start with looking at what strategies other communities are employing to address impaired driving, he said.

One change being considered is altering the message about drinking and driving to focus more on the criminal penalties, a message already airing nationally, Ternes noted, referring to televised public service announcements that show beer and other alcoholic beverages pouring out of cars as police bust drunk drivers.

Whether it’s through TV ads or court-ordered victim impact panels that DUI offenders are required to attend, Ternes said pulling at heartstrings with stories about the potentially fatal results of driving drunk may work in some cases, but it doesn’t resonate with everyone.

“I think the message does have to be a little more harsh, in that if you engage in this behavior, here are the (criminal) consequences,” he said.

Stiffer penalties?

Of course, those consequences must be severe enough to discourage the behavior, said Ternes, who has long been an advocate for stiffer penalties for traffic offenses in general in North Dakota.

Under state law, a DUI is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, though judges typically suspend the jail time and reduce the fine on a first offense, Ternes said.

The mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense is a $250 fine and an addiction evaluation. For a second offense within five years, state law requires at least five days of imprisonment – which can be served as house arrest with electronic home monitoring – or 30 days of community service, plus a $500 fine.

Penalties may be enhanced depending on blood-alcohol level or if a minor is in the vehicle.

Ternes said the law needs more serious penalties, like perhaps a day or two in jail for a first offense, to lower DUI rates.

Efforts to boost overall traffic fines have failed at the North Dakota Legislature since the state Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Fargo and other cities can’t assess traffic fines higher than state law allows.

Ternes said growing traffic problems in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch may prompt police chiefs and sheriffs out there to be more vocal next session about the need for changes.

Ternes said some fault lies with law enforcement agencies, which have the authority to seize vehicles of repeat DUI offenders but don’t exercise it as consistently as it should.

Again, that’s something that may change as the spotlight on driving drunk shines brighter, he said.

“If people think we’ve been tough on this issue in the past, they should expect us to get tougher,” Ternes said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528