Drunk driving arrests up, repeat offenders down; employers more likely to retain and rehabilitate DUI offenders

"Ray" doesn't remember what time he left the Traverse City bar late at night. He doesn't remember getting into his car for the short two-mile drive home.

He does remember the lights of the police car flashing in back of him and the sick feeling he had in the pit of his stomach as the officer approached the car.

Ray (who didn't want his real name used) was nailed for a first-time Driving Under the Influence (DUI) offense.

"I had gotten in my car and driven home after a few drinks lots of times," he said. "I guess my luck just ran out."

More and more Traverse City business people like Ray are finding their luck "running out" when it comes to drunk driving in the Grand Traverse area.

"DUI has been and remains the No. 1 serious traffic offense in Traverse City," said city police Chief Mike Warren. "We average seven DUI arrests per week and we consider it one of the most dangerous crimes we make arrests for."

Warren said that since 1991, DUIs issued by the Traverse City Police Department have risen from 154 per year to 353.

"I think there is a greater chance of being stopped and charged with drunk driving in Traverse City than other parts of the state," said local attorney Gerry Chefalo. "One reason is purely logistical. Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim don't have any public transportation systems that run 24/7. And right now we don't have any cab companies here. Also, there's the inability to walk home if you are in Traverse City for an event and live in Interlochen."

Like "Rachel," for instance. She lives on the west side of town but went to a social event at a business on the east side of Traverse City. She knew she shouldn't have driven, but figured it would take longer to call a cab then it would to drive home. Trouble is, she didn't make it home that night. She was pulled over less than a mile from her house.

"I realize now it was foolish on my part," she said. "But at the time, it seemed OK. I was just driving across town on the Parkway. There wasn't much traffic."

But between the fine, court costs and her insurance going up, she learned a hard and expensive lesson.

"I have to admit I was angry when I got pulled over," she said. "At first, I was angry at the police. Then I realized I had to take responsibility for my actions. That's not an easy thing to do."

District Court Judge Mike Haley, who started a highly successful drug treatment program, said he's seeing fewer repeat offenders these days.

"It involves long-term, coerced treatment and stiff accountability," he said. "And it's really working. So far, only three percent of those who have gone through the program have had another DUI.

"That's a far cry from the way it used to be. It amazed me after being on the bench just a couple of years that I was sentencing the same individual who had just gotten off probation. It felt like a revolving door instead of being an agent for change. So we instituted this new drug treatment program and the numbers prove that repeat rates have improved dramatically."

When people are convicted of a DUI, they usually see a dramatic increase in their insurance rates, said Fred Bonner, owner of Traverse City's Bonner Insurance Agency.

"It can go up anywhere from 50 to 100 percent…and that's if their insurance carrier keeps them," he said. "Some insurance carriers are more lenient for first-time offenders. Some aren't. And there are some carriers that don't want anything to do with DUI offenders. So the person who got the DUI will see their choices narrow considerably when it comes to insurance. Their best hope is to find an agent who is skilled in handling these kinds of cases."

While Haley and Bonner are more likely to deal with first-time offenders, Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers deals with repeat offenders. Many of those people are employees at Traverse City businesses.

"Employers seem to recognize it is cheaper to rehabilitate an employee rather than fire, recruit and retain," he said. "Of course, if a driver's license is necessary, employment will be lost. It is a rare felony case where the employer does not hold the job open for a defendant."

And some employers seem to realize that people make mistakes.

"We've had two employees arrested for first-time DUIs and they came right to us and told us about it," said one Traverse City employer, who preferred not to be named. "If there is such a case as scared straight, that's what happened to these employees.

"They continue to be good, solid employees. We showed faith in them when they were down and we feel they are loyal to us for that."

As far as who tends to be arrested for drunk driving, Rodgers sees two distinct categories:

"Recognizing that the first thing alcohol attacks is judgment, those arrested tend to be young binge drinkers and alcoholics of any age," Rodgers said. "Alcoholism does not respect age, gender, race, religion or economic status. The arrests tend to be at night, which correlates with the time most people tend to be drunk and driving. There also tends to be less people on the roads and their driving stands out. Cell phones have made it easier for other drivers to report bad drivers and for police to find the offender before someone is hurt."

But Rodgers said there has been a steady decline in the number of felony drunk driving cases since 2000. The numbers for 2001 through 2005 are 71, 62, 66, 55 and 51 in his court.

He gives two reasons for the decline.

"The most important is the diversion of true third offense drunk drivers to the District Court's drug program," he said.

The sentencing guidelines for a true third offender (no other record and no death or personal injury in the course of driving) are limited to six months in jail, which is less than the year available to the District Court for a second offense.

"We have excellent local treatment and the prosecutor seems to be satisfied the diversions are working," said Rodgers. "The second reason for the decline would be that fewer individuals are committing the crime. Drunk driving has been a priority for law enforcement for more than 25 years.

"People are aware of the risks, including jail, loss of driving privileges, forfeiture of your vehicle, enormous insurance costs and the costs to regain a license. Designated drivers are far more common and many alcoholics now drink at home and avoid driving."

But Chefalo, for one, doesn't think designated drivers are all they're cracked up to be.

"We see cases where they take a drink or two themselves and figure they are OK," he said. "And other cases where they join in with their friends and get smashed and someone who didn't plan on driving is forced to. The designated driver is a good concept. It just doesn't always work out."

It is better, agreed "Ray" and "Rachel," than simply getting behind the wheel after having a few drinks in Grand Traverse County.

"You hear about it happening to people, but you never think it's going to happen to you," they said. "Between the humiliation and the monetary and psychological costs, it just isn't worth it."

Yet, some area business people continue to drink and drive-at whatever cost.

"With all the publicity surrounding DUI-the very expensive fines and costs, the loss of driving privileges and the astronomical increase in insurance rates-it amazes me that people continue to drive under the influence," said Warren. "But they do." BN