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Decline in misdemeanor DWI arrests in Fulton County due to several factors

JOHNSTOWN — Misdemeanor driving while intoxicated arrests in Fulton County have steadily declined the past decade, mirroring a trend across New York state.

But mere numbers don’t tell the entire story, as a combination of better messaging and law enforcement may be starting to get through to the potential drunk driver.

Local officials feel motorists are finally embracing warnings to stay off the roads if they’re going to drink, or at least utilize a designated driver.

Fulton County Coroner Margaret Luck, who has chaired the county’s volunteer Traffic Safety Board for over a decade, said people are definitely taking sober driving more seriously. She said public information is also useful in getting the word out about the severe dangers of drinking and driving.

“I know we’ve gone down significantly,” Luck said of DWIs.

New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services’ statistics bear that out for the past 10 years. Fulton County had 167 misdemeanor DWI arrests in 2018 versus 281 in 2009. During the roughly 10-year period, DWI arrests in Fulton County dropped significantly, with 202 in 2012 and then less than 200 ever since.

Numbers of felony DWI arrests in Fulton County are a little more sporadic, with statistics resembling a roller coaster. The county had 32 felony DWI arrests in 2018 — about the same as the 34 recorded in 2009. In between, there was a high of 51 felony DWI offenders in 2012.

Across New York state, drinking and driving arrests continue to also go down — a steady decrease each year. DCJS data shows these misdemeanor DWI arrests since 2009: 2009 — 45,902; 2010 — 42,919; 2011 — 39,576; 2012 — 38,165; 2013 — 38,022; 2014 — 36,690; 2015 — 34,005; 2016 — 34,002; 2017 — 32,448; 2018 — 30,403.

Even felony DWI arrests statewide show a decline, from 6,282 in 2009 to 5,263 for 2018.

Luck said she personally knows the situation has vastly improved since the 1980s when DWI fatalities in Fulton County were commonplace.

“When the Traffic Safety Board first got together, there was a lot of drunk driving,” the coroner said.

That board — run through the District Attorney’s Office — meets monthly to review traffic safety practices in Fulton County. The county’s STOP-DWI Program, which the board oversees, funds DWI police patrols, school post-prom parties and other efforts such as the Free New Year’s Eve Taxi Program in Fulton County.

Luck said that because of various “initiatives,” people are being more responsible and smarter.

“A lot of people are more aware they shouldn’t drink and drive,” she said. “A lot of people are having house parties.”

A DWI conviction is also very expensive to litigate nowadays from attorneys, to fines, to work lost, and ignition interlock devices being mandated by judges.

The Fulton County Board of Supervisors recently accepted the county’s STOP-DWI Plan for 2020. The plan was approved for submission to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Office of Transportation Safety, in accordance with the county’s 2020 adopted budget.

District Attorney Chad Brown says the document basically represents the “budget plan” of the Fulton County STOP-DWI Program. That spending plan includes money for patrols and equipment used to combat drinking and driving in the county.

“I hope we’re getting the message out,” Brown said.

Brown noted all the money in the plan is derived from fines meted out to those convicted of DWI counts that go through the local court system.

“We try to keep on top of it,” the district attorney said. “I do think the plan represents our purpose. We’re very careful the way we budget.”

In the city of Gloversville, the last three years have seen up and down data. The Gloversville Police Department made 40 arrests in the “1192” section of the state Vehicle & Traffic Law — anything from driving while ability impaired to felony DWI — in 2017. The total spikes to 62 in 2018, but was back down to 35 for 2019. Some of the decrease in arrests reflects not as much alcohol consumption in bars, according to Gloversville police Lt. Brad Schaffer, the department spokesman.

“From what I hear from veteran members of the police department is that the [Gloversville] bar scene has significantly changed the last 10 years,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said more people are having house parties, being more responsible, and utilizing newer and safer methods of transportation such as rideshare services like Uber or Lyft. He also said both local and state police “do a pretty good job” with DWI crackdowns. The Gloversville police participate in programs aimed at certain STOP-DWI periods of the year and Schaffer said a “combination” of all these factors has probably led to a decline in DWI offenses.

The Gloversville police are also mostly busy at night with a plethora of disorderly conduct and domestic violence calls, he said.

“The majority of the volume of these calls are occurring during the nighttime period,” Schaffer said.

Thanks to a reformulated, targeted patrol program, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department saw its number of DWI arrests increase from 39 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.

But Sheriff Richard Giardino said most DWI offenders tend to learn their lessons the first time.

“In my experience as a district attorney, a judge and sheriff, two-thirds of those who get a DWI or DWAI will not get another DWI.” Giardino said.

He said the other one-third usually represent the “chronic” drunk drivers who will end up with eventual felonies.

“Most people will learn from it and not do it again,” the sheriff said.

Giardino added, “I think programs like Drug Court that treat both drug users and DWI [offenders] have been very successful.”

Still, the dangers of drunks behind the wheel remains a very frightening thought to law-abiding motorists who take to the roads every day and night.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 29 people die daily in America due to drunk driving. That amounted to one person dead every 50 minutes in 2016. The NHTSA says that while drunk driving deaths have definitely decreased the last 30 years, drunk driving crashes still claim at least 10,000 lives per year.

One thing that hasn’t been disputed over the years is the impact of alcohol on driving. The NHTSA reminds that alcohol reduces the ability of the brain, impairs thinking, muscle coordination and reasoning — all functions vital to driving a vehicle safely.

The NHTSA maintains various data regarding drinking and driving. The agency notes about 25 percent of all car accidents with teenagers involve an underage drinking driver. Two out of three people on average in the United States will be involved in a drunk driving accident in their lives. The largest percentage of drunk drivers are those aged 21 to 24. Drunk driving in fatal accidents is four times higher at night than during the daytime.

The gradual decline of DWI arrests is also seen in other surrounding counties. In Montgomery County, the number of misdemeanor DWI arrests the last few years as been in the 120s range, while it was over 200 10 years ago. Saratoga County had 923 DWI arrests in 2009 and 747 in 2018. Hamilton County even went from 30 DWIs 10 years ago to five in 2018.

Johnstown Police Chief David Gilbo believes motorists are being safer nowadays.

“But you see the felonies, the alcoholic who are not going to stop,” he said.

Gilbo said sometimes officers face scenes where the driver may be drunk, but the only one in the car who is sober is a person whose license was suspended. He said each scene is handled with discretion.

The people who handle the treatment of those who drink too much see many cases of both alcohol use and cross substance abuse.

“I think people who drink and drive are a diverse group,” says Bill Doran, program supervisor and a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor at St. Mary’s Addiction Services in Gloversville.

Doran said intoxicated drivers may have “serious issues,” or may just as well be in an isolated situation where they drink too much at a wedding reception and use “bad judgment’ getting behind the wheel. He said some people just don’t notice their levels of impairment.

“Maybe they thought they were okay, but they weren’t,” Doran said.

He said what is considered right and wrong in society has evolved, he said. Doran, who was on the Traffic Safety Board many years, said he remembers the days of the 1970s and ’80s when there were as many as 30 drunk driving fatalities in Fulton County a year.

Unfortunately, he said that while people are being more responsible drinking and driving, there are other substances in the system of the potential motorist. Opioids have now replaced alcohol for some Fulton County residents as their “drug of choice,” he said.

“We see a lot more opiate addiction than 10 or 20 years ago,” Doran said.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.

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