Within minutes of pulling out of the Utah Highway Patrol parking lot, a trooper and volunteer from Mothers Against Drunk Driving spotted their first offender: a car barrelling across the median on State Street, weaving and nearly colliding with an oncoming dump truck.
The driver was the first of 76 receiving drunken-driving citations among the 850 traffic stops during a weekend crackdown. Officers also made 29 drug arrests and served warrants to 22.
Some 89 troopers from several different counties helped participate in the crackdown Friday and Saturday. The crackdown targeted northern Salt Lake County Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. through 3 a.m., Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Doug McCleve said.
Freeways weren't the only roads where Highway Patrol officers were positioned. Several traffic stops were on surface streets. McCleve said Utah peace officers can make arrests anywhere in the state.
"We wanted to get them before they get on the freeway," McCleve said. "We don't want a drunk driver going 80 mph. There's a higher risk of injuries where they're driving that fast."
The sting is part of an ongoing attempt by police agencies and MADD to crack down on drunken drivers. At the same time, advocates for stricter laws and punishments for DUI offenses are going up against a tight state budget this legislative season, said Mary Phillips, President of MADD. This first arrest was so fast. "What this shows is it's a frequently committed crime . . . if you can catch them that quick," Phillips said. "This demonstrates the severity of the problem."
So does the the trend that shows Utah's rate of fatal accidents involving alcohol growing at a rate faster than the national average.
The number of people who died in Utah traffic accidents where alcohol was involved climbed 4 percent in 2000, according to a report released recently by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. In 2000, 89 of the 373 traffic fatalities statewide involved alcohol. The year before, alcohol was involved in the deaths of 74 people of 360 who died in traffic accidents. And while Utah remains the lowest in percentage of traffic deaths related to alcohol, the state is outpacing the national average.
Detective Rob Hall investigates fatal drunken driving crashes for Murray City Police Department. The most recent was the death of 18-year-old Joshua Warren, who was killed Sept. 16 by a suspected drunken driver in a crash at 4800 South and 300 West.
"I think a lot of people in the state are under the impression that it won't happen or it doesn't happen here," Hall said Monday. "Time and time again we see these kinds of cases."
Throughout the country, the number of people killed by drunken drivers increased last year for the first time in five years, according to the federal NHTSA data.
Overall highway deaths increased slightly in 2000 to 41,812, up from 41,717 in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Forty percent of those, or 16,653, involved alcohol, up from 38 percent, or 15,976, the previous year.
It is only the second time alcohol-related deaths have increased since 1986, when 24,045 people were killed. The number of deaths rose 4 percent from 1994 to 1995, although an overall rise in the number of deaths kept the percentage of deaths that involved alcohol at the same level.
Contributing: Laura Hancock