DUI numbers down

Reasons unclear; bartenders, taxi companies say they're doing their part

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Officer Chris Thompson of the Post Falls Police Department performs a sobriety test on Scott Lougheed, 23, after he was pulled over for a broken headlight Friday night. Lougheed was let go without a citation.

COEUR d'ALENE - Law enforcement agencies operating in Kootenai County have seen recent declines in DUI arrests.

But why? Police say it's hard to pinpoint exactly.

But it might just be that drinkers are being given every opportunity to stay safe and out of trouble, say bartenders and cab drivers.

Some officials for the police agencies said trends up or down could be attributed to the number of officers patrolling the streets. Others cited actions and attitudes of the courts. And some believe DUI emphasis patrols can serve as a deterrent to drunk driving.

"It's hard to say what the decline really means," said Kootenai County Sheriff's Department spokesman Maj. Ben Wolfinger.

The sheriff's department has seen a steady decline in DUI arrests from 2008 to 2011.

Starting at 874 arrests in 2008, the number has declined each year since. There were 617 last year, and about 300 through mid-June.

Idaho State Police Capt. Curtis Kastens said DUI arrests for his agency in Idaho's five northern counties declined each year from 2009 to 2011, ending with 385 last year.

ISP's trend followed a steep increase from 2008 to 2009, jumping from 459 to 603.

From the first of this year until June 11, the agency made 136 DUI arrests in the counties, Kastens said.

Wolfinger said, "We can hope that the people who drink choose not to drive. There are many more taxi companies in the area, so I hope that they are busy with people who have opted to use their services instead of driving themselves home."

Scott Dimberg, of Scott's Taxi in Coeur d'Alene, agrees.

"Three and a half years ago when I started my business there wasn't really taxi service from a bar to my home," said Dimberg.

Now taxi cabs can be found quickly downtown in front of bars, and taxi cabs respond quickly when called. Better service and availability has led to more use, he said. His business alone sends out almost 10 cabs on the busiest nights of the year.

"I feel like we're helping cut back on DUI rates," Dimberg said.

For the county, the total number of DUI "calls for service" also has declined, from 1,969 in 2008 to 1,658 last year. Most of the DUI calls for service are unfounded, and turn out to be slow drivers or somebody being inattentive or suffering from a medical condition.

Wolfinger said the decline in DUI is consistent with a decline in total bookings for DUI.

There were 1,391 total bookings in 2008, dropping to 958 last year. Through mid-June, the total bookings stood at 426.

Statistics from the Coeur d'Alene Police Department showed a decline since 2007 and 2008, when there was last a slight increase.

Since 2008, when there were 658 arrests, the arrests have fallen annually. In 2011, arrests dropped all the way down to 294.

Coeur d'Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood said the department has been able to use grant funds to pay for DUI emphasis patrols.

This year is on pace for another big drop, with 113 arrests through April. That compares with 124 through the first four months of 2011.

The city of Post Falls saw increasing DUI arrests for three years, before seeing a fast turnaround, declining the past two years.

For the year ending June 15, the city had 147 arrests, which was down from the previous year's 151. The city had a recent high of 232, three years ago.

Rathdrum Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said the number of DUI arrests in the city has dropped each of the past three years, reaching 25 last year. The city saw 55 such arrests in 2009.

In Spirit Lake, the numbers dropped dramatically to 17 in 2011, and through mid-June there had been five, said Spirit Lake Chief Patrick Lawless.

Police in Spirit Lake arrested 39 people for DUI in 2010, following two years of increases.

"I think (the lower number of DUI arrests) has got a lot do with aggressive action on the part of courts seeing these DUIs through," said Lawless.

The decrease also is attributable to officer vigilance, Lawless said.

"All of the officers feel very strongly about DUI enforcement," he said.

Miren Aburusa, a representative for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Boise, said the best way to see if drunken driving is going up or down is looking at crash data.

For impaired driving crashes, Kootenai County has been up and down each of the past five years that statistics are available. The number of impaired driving crashes was 181 in 2006, nearly the same as the 186 in 2010. The recent peak was 212 in 2007.

Abbi Litchfield, a bartender at Hogfish Bar at 1920 E. Sherman Ave., said, "We do everything we can to keep people from getting into a car after drinking."

Hogfish has a stack of taxi cab business cards ready for customers, and there is a large poster at the bar advertising a $5 ride anywhere in the Coeur d'Alene-Hayden area.

"We're thankful to the cab companies for making it affordable for patrons," she said.

Failing that, she said, "I've paid for many customers' cab rides home."

And, she said, the bar has cameras in the parking lot, keeping a watch on patrons' cars overnight.

"That's the No. 1 reason people get in their car and drive home - they don't feel comfortable leaving their car parked overnight," she said.

She hopes the bar's efforts help cut down on DUIs.

"As far as our regulars, it's very, very rare that we hear about somebody who is in jail (for DUI)," she said.

A vehicle was pulled over Friday night on Mullan Avenue for speeding by officer Chris Thompson of the Post Falls Police Department.

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