When Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, they introduced a new mechanized form of warfare known as the blitzkrieg, or lightning war. Commonly referred to as the “blitz,” it called for the use of overwhelming force and speed against an opponent with the goal of making sweeping gains and quick, decisive victories. The spirit of this tactic – which worked so well for Germany in the early years of World War II – has since been adopted by a number of modern organizations, not the least of which are the various police agencies throughout the State of Utah. Each year during the holiday seasons, hundreds of thousands of dollars are poured into overtime funding for the holiday DUI blitz, as city police and highway patrol officers take to the streets en masse, establish roadblocks and saturate high-traffic areas, all in the hope of comprehensively clearing the streets of all drunk drivers. Despite this worthy goal, however, the high cost of this effort – not to mention the inconveniences caused to perfectly innocent drivers – certainly calls for a measure of scrutiny.
There is no way to get around the fact that drunk drivers can kill: according to the Utah Department of Public Safety, 42 deaths in 2014 were caused by crashes involving drunk drivers in Utah. Representing more than a twofold increase when compared with the numbers of fatalities caused by drunk drivers in 2013 (reported at 19 for that year), this is certainly cause for some alarm. More concerning still is the statistic put forward by the new “Zero Fatalities” program: according to their website, alcohol-impaired driver crashes are four times as likely to involve fatalities when compared to other crashes.
Such statistics are reinforced by the tragic stories of the innocent victims of drunken driver-related crashes, including the death of Susan Kay Madsen presented in the Thirteenth Annual Driving Under the Influence Report to theUtah Legislature. Susan, a 43 year old mother of five children, was driving her 13-year old daughter home after a soccer practice on the evening of May 10th, 2014, and was hit by a drunk driver traveling at twice the posted speed limit. As a result, Susan was fatally injured and died at the scene, her daughter was critically injured, and at least seven other people were injured to some degree. The drunk driver was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of Susan, along with a host of other charges, all involving the injuries and intoxicated driving.
While every story like Susan’s is heartrending – as indeed are all stories involving fatalities in automobile accidents – the question remains: when compared to fatal crashes not caused by drunken drivers, are the extra resources and funds invested in the periodic police “blitzes” justified?
To answer that question requires a simple examination of the statistics given by the Utah Department of Public Safety. Every year, this department publishes a Utah Fatal Crash Summary, the latest of which is the summary of 2014 (as of the date of this article, the summary of 2015 has yet to be made available). This summary details every fatal automobile car crash in the state – as its name suggests – and the statistics it offers are surprising. Briefly put, the report indicates that no more than 16% of all vehicle-related fatalities in Utah for 2014 were caused by impaired drivers. Ahead of that amount included speeding drivers (34% of the total fatalities), driving without a seat belt (28% of the total fatalities), drivers of the age 65 and older (19% of the total fatalities) and motorcyclists (18% of the total fatalities). Taken together, 214 of the 256 fatalities caused by car accidents did not involve alcohol impaired drivers in 2014.
These astonishing numbers not only call into question the risk actually posed by intoxicated drivers – at least when compared with other categories of drivers – but also seemingly contradict the statistic presented by the Zero Fatalities program; that is, that accidents with alcohol impaired-drivers are four times more likely to result in fatalities. In fact, the only way to make sense of the two figures is to conclude that a driver is far less likely to be involved in an accident with an intoxicated driver in the first place, but that on the rare occasion a driver is involved in such an accident, fatalities are more likely. This conclusion rings of a similar tone to that of shark attacks: as horrific as such attacks may be, according to discovery, an individual is 30 times more likely to be killed by a lightning bolt than die from a shark attack, though fatalities do occur when attacks actually take place.
Of course, if the above figures are to be accepted, it might always be argued that the reason there are statistically fewer fatal accidents involving intoxicated drivers is simply due to the increased presence of law enforcement during blitzes – to say nothing of the harsher criminal penalties for driving drunk, as opposed to, say, speeding (the number 1 cause of fatalities). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this suggestion can also be answered by the reports provided by the State of Utah.
According to the Thirteenth Annual DUI Report to the Utah Legislature, in 2015 there were 41,839 vehicles stopped during special DUI overtime blitzes and/or checkpoints. Of these vehicles, only 934 alcohol related arrests took place – a mere 2.23% of the total drivers stopped. To say nothing of the inconvenience caused by these blitzes to the remaining 97.77% of the drivers, these blitzes incurred the costs of 4,421 overtime DUI shifts by police officers from various agencies.
The exact financial cost of the blitzes does not seem to be published, but it is not difficult to estimate: according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah officers in 2009 made an average of $47,706.00 per year, or approximately $22.94 per hour. If it is assumed that the medium salary was around that same amount in 2015, and calculating in the typical time-and-a-half for overtime work on an 8-hour shift, the cost to pay for the blitzes was a staggering $811,341.92. Given that many Utah officers earn well over $60,000.00 a year today – according to www.utahsright.com – the given total is very likely a low estimate.
The prevention of any death is always a laudable goal, and working to prevent another 42 people from dying this year is nothing to be sneered at. Yet the question remains: how many more lives might be saved if the resources consumed by DUI blitzes were directed elsewhere? If Utahns are wising up to the dangers of drunk driving – as they seem to be – perhaps it is time to work harder to save other victims, like the 214 people who died in non-alcohol related accidents back in 2014.
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