DUI: A dangerous choice on the rise

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Editor’s note: This is the first report in a three-part series about driving under the influence in Brookings County.

BROOKINGS – People who drive under the influence are a danger to the public, and that greatly concerns those in law enforcement and the legal system.

“Buzzed driving is drunk driving, and it does kill people. It can kill the passengers in your vehicle. It can kill other drivers on the road,” Brookings County State’s Attorney Dan Nelson said.

Nelson, Brookings Assistant Police Chief Joe Fishbaugher, and Magistrate Judge Abigail Howard realize people have a lax attitude about DUI and how catastrophic the results of that decision can be.

“Frustrated, very frustrated,” Fishbaugher said. “That’s the best way of putting it. You just get so frustrated.”

They all stressed that driving while incapacitated is a choice people make – and a really bad one at that.

There are many consequences to DUI. Financial woes can include hefty fines, increased vehicle insurance and job loss. Legal problems start with losing your license for a month all the way to prison time.

The solution is very simple, the trio said. Brookings has a taxi service, BATA bus, Uber, Lyft, and Rabbit Ride.

“Take those steps to plan ahead if you need to get a ride home so you’re not driving,” Howard said.

Problem getting worse

Nelson said there has been an overall increase in the number of DUI cases in Brookings County.

“This year, we’ll probably have a 15% to 20% increase in the number of DUIs. And that is an increase from the all-time high as far back as we’ve been tracking DUI convictions,” Nelson said, adding they don’t track statistics on drivers’ ages.

Fishbaugher said his officers are seeing all age ranges, from 15- and 16-year-olds to people in their 60s being picked up for DUI.

Fishbaugher pointed out those are the ones who get caught. There are others out there who haven’t been. Estimates on how many times people drive under the influence before getting caught range from 30 times to 80 times, Howard and Fishbaugher said.

Part of the problem may be that drinking is more acceptable than drugs in society, Howard speculated, but addiction is still addiction.

“(Repeat) DUI offenders are alcoholics, and that’s maybe more acceptable … People are more familiar with alcoholism,” she said.

“Buzzed driving is drunk driving,” Nelson said. “When people hear ‘drunk driving,’ I think they think that ‘well, I wasn’t that drunk.’”

People think they can assess how drunk they are, but the nature of being inebriated means you’re not thinking clearly by definition, Nelson said.

“I think (that) is the wrong way to think about it,” Nelson said. “The better assessment is don’t drink and drive, period.”

More incapacitated 

The statistics Fishbaugher sees at the police department show that people are driving more incapacitated than ever.

“The average blood alcohol content of people we arrest, that is on the rise,” he said.

The legal maximum blood alcohol content or BAC in South Dakota is 0.08.

The average BAC of the people picked up by the BPD has been .169, Fishbaugher said. That’s more than twice the legal limit.

People just don’t realize how drunk they are when they get behind the wheel, he said.

“Say if you go downtown at 7 o’clock and you’re hanging out with your friends,” Fishbaugher said. You might not be constantly drinking one beer after another, but all the alcohol you drink over the course of a few hours will catch up with you.

“A can of beer, a shot of Jack Daniels or a glass of wine are all the same amount of alcohol. So if you think about this – and I don’t think people really process this sometimes because you’re hanging out with your friends, you’re having fun – but somebody shows up and sets down like three or four shots in front of you (and you drink them), you just took four beers in like less than a minute,” Fishbaugher said. “Well, that’s all gonna hit you eventually.”

It may hit you while you’re still at the bar, it may hit you while you’re driving.

When it hits you depends on the individual person: age, weight, food consumption, medications, liver disease, and how fast you’ve drunk the alcohol, according to healthline.com online. 

As a general rule, “the more alcohol and/or the shorter the time period, the higher the blood alcohol content,” according to bgsu.edu, the website for Bowling Green State University.

“It’s also important to know how much alcohol is in your drink, because that will determine how long it takes to metabolize your drink. For example, some beers have a higher alcohol content, which affects how much alcohol you’re consuming from one drink,” according to healthline.com.

Not just alcohol

Like the name implies, DUI is driving while you are under the influence of any substance, including marijuana and illegal drugs like meth. 

“Right now, if you’re smoking marijuana and driving, you can be arrested … for DUI for that. I think some people kind of don’t understand that either,” Fishbaugher said.

“Back when I started it was DUI, they were drinking,” Fishbaugher said. “Now it’s like a cocktail; it’s not just alcohol … it’s alcohol, marijuana with alcohol, meth in the car, too.” 

“It’s like (alcohol and drugs) all go together now, and people are doing this stuff and hopping behind the wheel of their car and driving around town,” Fishbaugher said.

‘Not worth it’

“It’s just not worth it,” Fishbaugher said, adding it makes no sense why people drive when there are so many options available.

“If you’ve ever been downtown at like 2 o’clock in the morning, I mean, there’s taxis and Ubers all over the place, sitting there waiting to pick people up,” Fishbaugher said. “That’s what confuses us in law enforcement. We’ve got all these services, but why are we still seeing people with .169 (BAC) driving cars?”

There are 72-hour lots to park a vehicle overnight near downtown, most hot spots are within walking distance, and “the taxi can pick you up at your house just as easy as they can pick you up downtown,” Fishbaugher said.

Whatever a taxi ride costs, “that’s a lot cheaper than your insurance being taken off your car and getting arrested,” Fishbaugher said.

“It’s just so sad,” Fishbaugher said. “DUI is 100% preventable. It doesn’t have to happen. You make the conscious choice to do that. You shouldn’t have any DUIs because they know they shouldn’t be driving and drinking.”

Think about others

People need to stop making “selfish decisions” and think about others – family and strangers – before getting behind the wheel.

“For example, I’ll use myself. I’m gonna go out with my friends, I gotta remember, leaving that house, I’ve got a wife and two kids that want me to come home,” Fishbaugher said.

Everyone needs to think how their decisions will affect their loved ones, he said.

“They want you to make good decisions,” Fishbaugher said. “When you’re leaving the bar; take a few minutes, get some fresh air, stand there, (ask yourself) ‘Maybe I shouldn’t drive. I know I’m not like I should be. There are people who care about me.’”

Folks also need to think about others who are out on the roads, even the sidewalks, while they’re driving impaired, and how they might affect those people’s lives and their families forever.

“That’s why I keep going back to it’s such a selfish act because that one decision can affect so many people. And it’s a simple, ‘No, I’m not gonna drive’ and none of those people get affected,” Fishbaugher said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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