Despite a growing stigma around drunken driving, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths rose in Colorado in 2016.
Last year, 608 people died on the road, marking a 10-year high, according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Alcohol-related traffic deaths increased from 151 in 2015 to 161 in 2016.
To help address drunken driving, the Celebrating Healthy Communities Coalition plans to form a four-county collaborative with five years of grant funding it recently received from the state, said Pat Senecal, the coalition’s director.
The Celebrating Healthy Communities application was one of three proposals to receive $156,500 a year for up to five years from the Persistent Drunk Driving/Law Enforcement Assistance Fund grant.
The coalition already runs a designated-driver campaign in La Plata County and worked with vendors to offer free nonalcoholic drinks for designated drivers at events like Taste of Durango and the San Juan Brewfest.
“It’s starting to be part of the conversation, which is exactly what we want,” she said.
The coalition also works with event organizers to emphasize the importance of not overserving drinks.
The new collaborative will include people from La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan and Dolores counties, and the first year will be focused on assessing the problem in the region. In addition to understanding local data, the collaborative will need to determine what the community is ready and willing to hear.
As part of the assessment, Senecal plans to hold focus groups with people from many sectors, including businesses, law enforcement, schools, churches and therapy groups, among others.
“Our goal in every single county is to get voices from a diverse population,” she said.
The coalition plans to work with Fort Lewis College’s public health program to develop the assessment. The data that will be collected by the coalition will inform its education and awareness campaigns.
A complicated problemStatewide, traffic fatalities declined after the recession, said Sam Cole, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Since then, the economy has improved, gas prices dropped and the population across the state has increased, he said.
But drivers’ behaviors are still at the root of the problem, he said.
“We should not use the economy or low gas prices as any kind of excuse,” he said.
When it comes to drunken driving, alcohol-related deaths are far below what they were about 15 years ago, Cole said.
“There is much more of a stigma around drinking and driving than there ever was before,” he said.
Between 2012 and 2016, there were 14 traffic deaths related to alcohol or drugs in La Plata County and nine in Montezuma County, according to CDOT. The department stopped breaking out alcohol-specific deaths on its county-level reports in 2015.
It’s impossible to see trends in the local fatality data because the numbers are so low, Durango Police Department Cmdr. Ray Shupe said.
“Our philosophy is we want them at zero,” he said.
Enforcement effortsDUI arrests statewide have declined steadily for more than 10 years, from more than 32,000 in 2005 to 22,000 in 2016, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
The Colorado State Patrol also has seen its own DUI citations decline statewide, from 5,546 in 2014 to 4,458 in 2016, Sgt. Rob Madden said. But he could not say why the number was declining.
“It is a multitude of issues that could result in that number going down,” he said.
The number of troopers working and the weather could affect the number of DUIs, he said.
In La Plata County, the number of DUI citations issued by Colorado State Patrol has risen steadily from 102 in 2014 to 178 in 2016.
La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has also caught far more people driving drunk in recent years, up from 50 in 2012 to 161 in 2016.
Grant funding from CDOT to enforce DUI laws has helped increase enforcement efforts, said Sgt. Tom Cowing.
“When it comes to saturated patrols and individual patrols, we are having more success in locating intoxicated, impaired drivers,” he said.
Most recently, CDOT gave the Sheriff’s Office a $21,000 grant to use between July 2017 and July 2018 for enforcement efforts. The money can be used for money and additional patrols around holidays and other times, he said.
The Durango Police Department typically issues about 300 DUI citations and arrests a year, and most of them are first-time offenders, Shupe said.
Since the legalization of marijuana, the department has seen an increase of people who are driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the same time, he said.
When it comes to prevention, Shupe said educating bar patrons and bartenders can be effective.
Cowing said he supports the designated driver program that Celebrating Healthy Communities is already working in the county.
“I like that message that they are sending: ‘Hey, it’s OK to be DD (designated driver),” he said.