DUI limits changing attitudes on drinking

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Attitudes may be shifting in the public realm whether it's worth it to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to local statistics.

A new law has been in effect in Colorado since August that decreases the blood-alcohol limit one is allowed to legally drive. While the bill that lowers the drunken-driving threshold from 0.1 percent blood-alcohol level to 0.08 percent may not keep people from drinking less, it is changing how people drive, law enforcement said.

"I think the attitude has changed in the community that it's not OK to drink and drive," said Cpt. Jerry DeLong of the Craig Police Department. "People realize it's too big a risk to take."

In one year, from August 2003 to 2004, Craig Police Department recorded 26 driving under the influence arrests. In Moffat County, Colorado State Patrol troopers handled 14 DUI-related accidents and issued 46 DUI citations during that same period. To date, since the law has been changed, police have arrested eight people on DUI charges and state patrol recorded one DUI-related accident that resulted in three arrests.

A monthly average of the numbers suggests that the rate of DUI arrests have remained about constant, even under the stricter law.

Tom Mathers, owner of Mathers' Bar said there are visible clues that more people are deciding not to drink and drive judging by the amount of vehicles that fill the bar's parking lot overnight. It's a trend that patrons have recently adopted.

"On a Saturday or Sunday morning we now see lots of cars in the parking lot," he said. "I think people still drink as much as they always drink, but they've become more aware not to drive."

The bar, like others in the Bar Owners' Association of Craig, helps financially supports Craig's All Around Taxi. The start-up cab service has helped get patrons home safely, he said.

"I think anytime somebody has spent money with you, you should try to get them home safe," Mathers said.

Dean Harrison has a history of DUIs but has been sober for months. He gauges that the stricter DUI laws may be the difference of one pint of beer for those who are unaccustomed to drinking.

"I think the lowered limit has been a good thing," he said.

Still, Harrison doesn't think the new law has changed the attitude of how much someone will drink when they go out to a bar if they have a sober driver. In other instances, however, the new law may change the habits of a designated driver who also plans to drink, he said.

Harrison is required as part of his treatment to breathe into a Breathalyzer before starting the engine on his truck. Yet, Harrison said he would keep the machine installed even after he's freed of that requirement because the truck serves as his company's shared vehicle.

But neither Craig police nor state patrol said they patrolled solely to spot and arrest drunken-drivers. Sgt. Gary Meirose with the Colorado State Patrol said his troopers try to make a presence on holidays and weekends, during times people are traditionally known to drink heavily. On New Year's Eve, for example, the department finds it's more effective to strategically place vehicles around town early in the night, Meirose said.

"We try to make a presence as people are heading to parties," he said.

DeLong thought that an increase in education and the high costs of DUIs keeps drunken-driving at bay. Minimum penalties of a DUI conviction can be from 5 days to one year in jail and fines of more than $1,000.

DeLong estimated that the majority of the people who get arrested locally are above a 0.01 blood-alcohol level or are "really drunk."

"I don't think for my area that we have a big DUI problem," Meirose added. "Do people drink here? Yes. Do people drive? Yes. Do we have a problem? Not to the extent that we're seeing a problem, yet."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com

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