Beach areas take aim at DUI cases
Agencies are stepping up their efforts to prevent alcohol- and drug-related crashes.
By CRISTINA SILVA
Published June 17, 2007
Suncoast beach communities are putting a greater focus on pursuing impaired drivers in order to reduce alcohol- and drug-related traffic accidents, officials said.
Narrow streets, frequent traffic jams, and large numbers of tourists and visitors make impaired drivers a particular danger in local municipalities along the Gulf of Mexico.
"The beaches are considered kind of a party area, " said Cheryl Henrion, a Clearwater senior victim's advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "There are a lot of drinking establishments there."
St. Pete Beach recently applied for and received a $96, 000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to combat intoxicated and reckless drivers. The city has used the money to purchase a fully equipped, unmarked 2007 Dodge Charger and to pay for personnel costs for a DUI traffic enforcement officer.
Gulfport police Chief G. Curt Willocks has told his department that he wants to see an increase in DUI arrests.
Agencies are more aggressively responding to DUI enforcement, in part, because of the rising public awareness of the risks of driving while impaired, said Tim Casey, chief of the Treasure Island Police Department.
"Obviously, it kills people, " he said.
It can be difficult to measure whether DUI infractions are occurring more frequently, police officials said. DUI arrests tend to fluctuate every year depending on various factors, including how many driver checkpoints a department holds each year and whether individual officers decide themselves to specifically pursue impaired motorists.
For example, in St. Pete Beach, there were 137 DUI arrests in 2005, followed by 56 DUI arrests in 2006. Yet there have been 73 DUI arrests to date this year.
Still, compared with cities of similar size, St. Pete Beach has an unfavorable percentage of alcohol-related crashes to non-alcohol- related crashes, said Officer Addie "JR" Raleigh.
"We already had 20 DUI-related crashes this year so far, " he said. "The last thing we would want is to have a family come into our city for a vacation and get killed in a car accident by a DUI driver. So we kind of want to send out the message that we aren't going to tolerate it anymore."
In Treasure Island, officers set up DUI checkpoints during major holidays and carefully watch areas with clusters of bars. There are about 10 DUI arrests per month on average, Casey said.
"The water attracts many people, " he said. "We certainly have all kinds of accidents out here. You even have people on their bicycles who are impaired and someone veers into Gulf Boulevard."
Unlike St. Petersburg or the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, it is rare for smaller municipalities to have enough employees to create a specific DUI unit.
Police officers in Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach and Gulfport are expected to pursue DUI arrests as part of their routine police enforcement.
"We focus on prevention, " said Lt. Robert Vincent, a Gulfport police spokesman.
"If an officer sees someone who might be too intoxicated to drive, we kind of have a duty to stop them before they do. So if the officer sees someone walking out of the bar who looks obviously drunk, they might just walk up to them and say, 'Hi, the police are here, you might not want to drive.' "
Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or email@example.com.
DUI arrests in 2006 by city
St. Pete Beach 56
Treasure Island 75
St. Petersburg 694
[Last modified June 16, 2007, 21:30:20]
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