Police say Thanksgiving to year’s end worst time of year for drunken driving
The holiday with the worst reputation for impaired driving is New Year’s Eve.
Image isn’t always reality, say law enforcement officials and groups that combat impaired driving.
According to PennDOT, the days around Thanksgiving — rather than Christmas or New Year’s — have the highest rates of crashes related to alcohol, and the five weeks of staggered holiday and office parties between Thanksgiving and the end of the year are especially taxing for law enforcement agencies.
“There is a lot more traveling. People tend to go out more, whether it’s to a friend or family member’s house or an office party,” said Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police.
The 35 to 40 days between Thanksgiving and the end of the year keep officers busy, said William Westerman, police chief in Adams, Butler County.
“We patrol as much as we can. People drink and drive, when they shouldn’t, all year. We see it at golf outings. But there does seem to be more impaired driving around the winter holidays,” he said.
In 2013, there were 551 crashes in Pennsylvania during the week of Thanksgiving, a nine-day period that starts the Saturday before the holiday and ends on the following Sunday.
That compares with 200 such accidents during the same period at Christmas 2013 and 186 accidents at the same period before New Year’s.
“During the week of Thanksgiving, there is much higher volume of traffic. That’s one factor in the higher number of accidents,” said Cathy Tress, Western Pennsylvania liaison for the Pennsylvania DUI Association, a nonprofit organization that works to address DUI prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation.
Tress says there’s a stigma attached to drunken driving.
“Education has improved things. People now look down on someone arrested for a DUI,” she said.
In Pennsylvania in 2013, there were 11,041 alcohol-related crashes, down from 11,805 in 2012. There were 384 alcohol-related highway deaths in 2013 in Pennsylvania, down from 404 in 2012.
Identifying impaired driving is complicated by drivers who are under the influence of drugs, not alcohol. The drugs include marijuana, heroin, cocaine and prescribed medications such as sleep aids and painkillers, Reed said.
A breath test will detect alcohol-impared drivers, but there’s no similar test to identify people under the influence of drugs. Police have to rely on blood tests, which can take several weeks to get results.
“Troopers are becoming better at recognizing symptoms of drug impairment,” Reed said. “You can tell they are impaired. They are not interacting as a sober person would.”
When impairment is suspected, police departments can rely on the expertise of a drug recognition officer to immediately take the driver off the road and file charges.
“They can be called as needed,” said Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Duane Fischer, grant coordinator for the 10-department Mt. Lebanon area DUI task force.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.