Officers plead with public not to drink and drive after 2020 saw big increases in alcohol, drugged driving crashes

WATCH: The state of deadly OWI crashes
WATCH: The state of deadly OWI crashes
Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 5:11 PM CST
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - New Year’s Eve celebrations this year may not include traditional party plans, but law enforcement agencies are pleading with people who do plan to go to friends houses or bars to choose a designated driver before ever leaving home.

Despite the pandemic and stay at home orders, 2020 has turned into one of the worst -- in several years -- when it comes to fatal OWI crashes.

What investigators are seeing is a trend that both puzzles and concerns them.

A year ago, we all had high expectations for 2020, Brown County Sheriff’s Patrol Captain Dan Sandberg included.

2019 was ending in a hopeful way. Not a single person was killed in the county at the hands of a drunk driver for the first time in decades.

He, and everyone else, had hoped that was the start of a positive trend.

2020 proved us all wrong.

“Ten out of those 15 crashes involved drugs and alcohol which puts us back up to the high end, and we haven’t really seen that percentage of our fatal crashes since 2009, so it’s not a very good year for us. We really want to remind people to please not drink and drive... and same things with drugs,” says Sandberg.

Two-thirds of all fatal crashes in the county in 2020 involved people severely impaired by alcohol or drugs including meth, cocaine and marijuana.

That’s 10 deaths Sandberg says were preventable.

But it’s a bit puzzling it happened at a time when people were not going to bars and restaurants as usual.

“So where are those people coming from? Are they coming from home? Going to neighbors houses, friends houses, because they’re obviously not hanging out at the taverns,” says Sandberg. “I think a lot of that just shows alcohol is a problem wherever it is, whether it’s at home, but it’s a problem in our community that needs to be addressed.”

That starts at times like New Year’s Eve, notorious for drunk or drugged driving.

Extra patrols will be out for the night, but they’re not stopping there.

Sandberg says 2021 will come with plenty of extra enforcement all year, but it will also refocus on education, prevention and encouraging even more use of the Safe Ride Program.

There will be continual focus on recognizing impaired drivers, especially those under the influence of drugs.

Wisconsin has more than 300 officers statewide specially trained as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) to detect drugged driving. They are among the highest number in the nation, but they’re looking to train even more officers.

There’s also a continued effort to get more officers ARIDE-trained (Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement). That gives more officers the ability to detect impaired drivers and get them off the road before they cause crashes.

Right now, 5,223 officers in Wisconsin are ARIDE-trained, but the state patrol wants to have every trooper in Wisconsin trained by 2022.

There is a need.

The state’s Bureau of Transportation Safety references a recent study that showed during the pandemic, crash victims had a higher prevalence of alcohol, active THC and opioids in their bodies.

Drivers showed much higher levels of drug use during the pandemic, with almost 65 percent testing positive for at least one active drug, compared to about 51 percent before the pandemic.

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