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5% of Utah drivers have a DUI arrest

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Look around while driving Utah's roads and highways, Gretchen Clark says.

Count the cars around you in the logjam at 10600 South and I-15.

If you travel a lot like she does between Salt Lake City and St. George, see how many pass by 18 inches away in the lanes to the right and left.

Look at all the cars around you. Look at their drivers and see if it makes new statistics about drunken driving in Utah hit any closer to home.

A study of DUI offenses over 10 years shows about 5 percent of Utahns have been arrested for drunken driving. And of that pool of drunken drivers, one-quarter are repeat offenders, according to the data, compiled from driver license records by Jennifer Hemenway of the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Those are only the people arrested or convicted, said Clark, whose son was killed by a drunken driver several years ago.

"Statistics about the those potential drunk drivers — those I see when I drive back and forth to St. George — the risk we all face is probably untrackable," said Clark, who was involved with Parents Against Drunk Driving, a grass-roots advocacy group that existed before a Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter came to Utah.

The new report is significant in Utah's ongoing battle against the problem of drinking and driving because demographic information here is so disorganized that there has been virtually no way to draw a clear profile of a drunken driver.

And advocates who fight for tougher sentences and drunken-driving laws say they desperately need this data to build public-awareness campaigns, so they can draw some conclusions from the report's details: such as the fact that Utah repeat offenders don't mess around when it comes to being re-arrested for driving drunk. According to the report, nearly 25 percent of those who are caught drinking and driving again did so within six months.

"What this shows us is that it's probably very much with them an addiction," said Art Brown, an advocate for victims of drunken driving on the statewide council now tackling these issues. "It tells us they have to have the treatment component and they have to be separated from their cars by an (ignition) interlock or some other means."

Advocates of tougher drunken driving laws have testified for years that about 20 percent of drunken drivers are repeat offenders. The new data shows that number is actually 25 percent.

That's an indication that more people are repeating these offenses or police and prosecutors are doing a better job of identifying who's been caught drinking before and who's committing the offense for the first time.

But Nora Stephens, a former Utah lawmaker and tireless advocate for stricter sanctions for drunken drivers, isn't surprised the chunk of repeat offenders is on the rise. "It's quite possible — we are getting better enforcement than we've ever had," she said.

The percentage of drunken drivers who re-offend in Utah is still lower than most other places. About a third of all drivers arrested for DUI or driving while intoxicated (DWI) are repeat offenders, according to data gathered from 12 states by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration.

In all, 143,514 offenses were reported by 102,528 separate individuals in Utah.

Brown said he hopes the data will open people's eyes about the volume of those repeating the crime. "We are using a lot of resources to re-arrest and bring to trial the same people. We need to free up the system a little."

Members of the state's DUI task force requested this data, which showed that 1,400 Utah offenders had five DUI convictions or more. And that means they could be endangering others again.

"It is a risk we all face 24 hours a day," Clark said, "whether we are standing on the freeway or in our own driveways. Whether it's 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 10, 11 or 12."

Clark's teenage son and two friends were stopped at an intersection when a drunken driver blew a stop sign near the airport and slammed broadside into their car. The driver of the boys' car died instantly; Clark's son died 12 days later of massive brain stem damage.

The Utah report, based on a search of the name of the person arrested, date of birth, date of arrest, gender and date of court adjudication, will be presented to the 21-member Governor's Council on Driving Under the Influence next month.

The report showed the following detail about Utah's drunken driving population:

83 percent were male; 17 percent were female.

78 percent of offenders were younger than age 40 at the time of their first arrest. Of these, 39 percent were in their 20s. Seven percent of those arrested for the first time were older than age 50.

24 percent of those who got caught drinking and driving again did so within six months of the prior conviction. Three-quarters of those who are arrested — who have had a prior arrest — are re-arrested within three years; and 90 percent are arrested again within five years.

Repeat offenders are more likely to be male and younger than one-time offenders.

25 percent of those arrested are responsible for 46 percent of the arrests.<

Another part of the data evaluates the amount of time that passes between the date of arrest and conviction. In 35 percent of the cases, adjudication took only 30 days. Twenty percent took 31 to 60 days to work their way through the process; 14 percent, 61 to 90 days; 18 percent, 91 to 180 days; and 9 percent, six months to a year. Five percent of cases took more than a year to go through the system.

Search of the records showed some holes in the database operated by the state driver license division, one of two repositories for criminal DUI information in the state: 10 percent of records were missing gender identification; and in 33 percent of the cases, no conviction date was posted to the file.

These kinds of omissions are part of a larger problem of tracking drunken driving offenders through the state's computer systems. Recent news reports and analysis by a subcommittee to a council appointed by Gov. Mike Leavitt show huge errors in the way DUI offenders are charged, sentenced and treated. Much of the problem is a blamed on a confusing and fragmented data system .

The council is trying to find funding for a broader study of these issues, Stephens said.

"Drawing a profile of these people is one of the problems," she said. "The other problem is the difference on sanctions imposed in other courts. We desperately need to find a way to fix it."

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com