Changing a culture: How Summit County can work to combat high DUI rates |

Changing a culture: How Summit County can work to combat high DUI rates

A reveler pours a shot at an event in Breckenridge in December.
Liz Copan /

FRISCO — Residents around Summit County might have witnessed area police chatting with drivers at their windows or performing roadside sobriety tests over recent days as county and state officials continue efforts to curb the number of impaired drivers on the roadway.

On Friday, the Colorado Department of Transportation began its first high-visibility enforcement period of the year in partnership with law enforcement agencies around the state. The campaign, called “The Heat is On,” runs throughout the year as a deterrent to stop drivers from getting behind the wheel while inebriated.

But even with prior knowledge of heightened enforcement efforts, some drivers continue to take the risk. During the New Year’s Eve enforcement period (Dec. 27 through Jan. 2), almost 350 Colorado drivers were arrested for driving drunk or high, including at least 24 in the Summit County area.

So if the fear of arrest, loss of driving privileges and heavy financial costs — along with the potential for much worse — aren’t enough to dissuade some impaired drivers, what will?

The future fight against DUIs

According to officials in the criminal justice field, solutions are much more complicated than simply increasing punishments for offenders.

“We can debate deterrents all day long,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “I’m of the belief that deterrents do have a role and that people who understand the law related to impaired and under-the-influence driving will quickly get the message that it’s not worth it. I don’t think any increase in penalties would have any measurable increase in compliance. I don’t think hanging people higher will make the difference.”

Brown noted that there are other potential solutions on the table to combat DUIs from a statewide perspective, though it’s unlikely people will see them come into play anytime soon.

Drinking Culture

The problem of impaired driving in Summit County

Summit County’s Fifth Judicial District has the second highest rate of DUI charges per capita in Colorado. In this series, we explore the public safety issue and take a look at how the problem could be addressed.

Dec. 31: A look at statewide data on impaired driving
Jan. 7: Why does Summit have a higher rate of DUIs?
Jan. 14: What is a DUI, and what happens after an arrest?
Jan. 21: What’s next in the fight against impaired driving?

Last year, Utah became the first state in the nation to lower blood alcohol content limits for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%, and while final numbers aren’t yet in, officials are hopeful the recent change is encouraging drivers to make better decisions and is not negatively impacting tourism. Some countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary have taken things even further and don’t allow drivers to consumer any alcohol whatsoever.

Changes to Colorado’s marijuana driving laws also could help to prevent impaired driving in the future. While Colorado does have a suggested limit of five nanograms of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, there is no “per se” limit wherein a court could conclusively say a person was under the influence. In other words, the five-nanogram limit doesn’t have the same teeth as similar limits for alcohol impairment. While legislators have resisted setting a stronger limit due to ongoing questions about “how high is too high to drive,” Brown said the lack of a black-and-white line might be causing some drivers to take unwarranted risks.

“It gives more leeway to people who want to get high and get behind the wheel of a car,” Brown said. “Will (these solutions) save lives? Absolutely, but there are other costs that aren’t insignificant. … We want to make sure our community has a life enjoyable quotient similar to other places around the country. And our own residents deserve the ability to knock off at the end of the day and have a beer or two. It’s just when it becomes excessive or unsafe to other people that it becomes a problem. But those are things that could be considered.”

As officials continue to seek answers for how to best reduce DUIs and roadway fatalities into the future, emerging technologies could provide additional solutions, whether it’s in the form of a new high-speed transit system through the mountain corridor or self-driving cars helping to take human error out of the equation.

“It will happen at some point,” Brown said. “I’m just not optimistic that day is close. We’re looking way down the road at this point.”

Preparation is key

While travelers will have to wait on some new gadgets to emerge, other pieces of technology are already making a big difference in the fight against impaired driving.

Many DUI offenders are required to install an interlock device in their vehicles to get their driving privileges reinstated, though portable breathalyzers are becoming a more popular option for drivers wanting to check their level before driving. The devices are available online and at stores like Best Buy, and CDOT even offers occasional discounts on the devices through a partnership with

A woman demonstrates using an interlock device to start her car Jan. 16 in Frisco.
Liz Copan /

“Portable breath testing is pretty reliable,” said Summit County Judge Edward Casias, who handles a majority of the county’s DUI cases. “It would give a good ballpark figure you can use to help make that decision not to drive. And for someone who may have a high tolerance and doesn’t really know what that number is, if they look at it and see a 0.12 they’ll know they need to find another way home. … It’s well worth the investment, and it could save you a lot of costs on a DUI.”

And if at the end of the night a driver did have one too many drinks, having prepared a plan to get home before going out can go a long way in preventing DUI offenses.

“The biggest thing is planning ahead and having a game plan,” Summit County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mark Gafari said. “I know if I’m going to go out and have a couple drinks I’m not going to risk driving at all. So it’s important to have a designated driver or someone who you can rely on to call. It’s also a good idea to research the bus transit system and to know how to utilize the option of a no-tow.”

There are a number of resources that inebriated individuals in Summit County should know about, aside from available rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. The Summit Stage is a free bus service that runs through the county and operates into the early morning in some areas. Breckenridge also offers a free bus service called Breck Free Ride that operates between 6:15 a.m. and 11:45 p.m. Gafari noted that on occasion, law enforcement officers can provide rides to individuals who ask, if they’re not too busy on other calls.

Impaired people who are worried about leaving their car behind should also consider calling in a “no-tow.” According to Gafari, anyone who’s inebriated can call the Summit County 911 Center’s nonemergency line (970-668-8600), inform dispatchers that they’re impaired and unable to drive, and request that law enforcement leave their car alone until they’re able to pick it up sober.

Before heading out for a night of drinking or to a friends’ house to smoke, drivers also should take a moment to consider their limits, especially if they’re in a new environment. Casias noted that one of the most common issues he sees is people miscalculating how much alcohol they’ve consumed. For example, someone who is used to drinking two 12-ounce beers with a 4.2% alcohol content might not consider the difference when drinking two 16-ounce beers with 8% alcohol content.

“Even if they are matching what they’re usually drinking, it can get away from them,” said Casias, who suggested a series of public service announcements hung up in bars to remind individuals of the affects of high-alcohol microbrews and elevation. “People forget that they’re at high altitude with less oxygen, and they’re probably dehydrated. It’s not the same as drinking in their hometown.”

Balancing hydration with alcohol consumption is a key factor in calculating blood alcohol levels.
Liz Copan /

Substance use is a symptom

Certainly not everyone who gets a DUI is an addict or frequently uses substances excessively, though for some, the offense can be the result of more serious substance use disorders or mental health struggles.

“We know that people self medicate with drugs and alcohol who are experiencing mental health issues,” Brown said. “So one of the biggest things we can do as a community is to emphasize the availability for all persons, regardless of income, to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“We’re often left cleaning up the harm, the head-on collisions that occur on our highways that send people to the hospital or morgue. If we can get ahead of the harm, that’s the most fundamental community-based thing we can do.”

There are services available in Summit County for anyone who feels they might be dealing with substance use problems.

One resource is Mind Springs Health in Frisco, which offers a number of support services such as a COPES group (abstinence-based recovery to help individuals stay sober), SMART group (self-management and recovery techniques for heavy users), Seeking Safety groups (support for women to learn to manage trauma without the use of drugs or alcohol) and many more. 

“I think anytime someone is contemplating whether or not they have an issue, they should get support,” said Meredith Smith, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of Mind Springs Health in Frisco. “It’s just a way to determine how much that substance use is impacting how well they’re functioning — if it’s hurting their relationships or hurting their job.

“Substance use is a symptom. We’re trying to tease out where it’s coming from. We’re not going to label you. We want to help you determine how to move past it so it doesn’t get to the place where you’re incurring charges.”

Anyone interested can call a Mind Springs office to speak with a clinician or get more information on programming as well as drop in during open access hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays. Individuals seeking help also can find it at the Summit Community Care Clinic in Frisco, which offers a number of behavioral health services regardless of a person’s ability to pay.

There also are daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around the county, along with frequent Narcotics Anonymous and Alateen meetings meant for individuals to help cope with close association with an alcoholic. A list of support groups can be found at Building Hope Summit County’s website,, a local organization dedicated to creating a better mental health network in the area.

Many of the county’s major employers also offer resources for their employees who are dealing with mental health or substance use issues. For example, Vail Resorts offers all employees and their dependents access to an employee assistance program, which provides some free counseling sessions for things like substance use, along with the company’s Caring For a Coworker program that provides similar support.

“A lot of substance abuse goes hand-in-hand with mental health,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “If you’re suffering from a mental health issue, there are even emergency services through the (System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team) we’re starting up and through Colorado Crisis Services. Safe2Tell is a great anonymous tip line for the young folks who can help. Reach out and talk to somebody. We’ll find you help.”

Resources To Know

It’s hip to be square

The fight against impaired driving is multifaceted, and even if there’s no easy way to reach the abundance of visitors making their way up to recreate, experts say community members in Summit County can help to change the culture for locals and especially for kids growing up in the area.

Summit County Youth and Family Services Manager Robin Albert said one of the best ways to prevent someone from driving impaired in the future is to make them well aware of the dangers before they’re ever put in a situation where they have to make that decision. And in addition to health curriculum in area schools that touch on the topic, Albert said parents also should plan a conversation with their teens. provides resources for how best to begin a discussion with your kids on the subject.

“Find moments to have open and frank conversations about substances and how to be safe,” Albert said. “Seeing someone spun out in the snow might be a great way to start that conversation. … But those discussions should go beyond drinking and driving.

“Our youth are saturated with seeing people with a drink in their hand or going into dispensaries. Tourists come here to relax, and we need to be teaching our kids that that type of substance use isn’t an everyday thing in real life. We need to start by recognizing our surroundings and take every moment to educate them on what they’re seeing.”

Albert said the Summit community at large also should be looking to curb the proliferation of substances into our everyday lives — whether it’s hosting a card night with snacks and soda instead of booze, or better emphasizing the area’s healthy activities like ski events and trail runs where alcohol isn’t necessarily a staple.

“There’s a movement right now around being sober,” FitzSimons said. “It’s starting to catch on where now it’s more cool to eat healthy, work out and not drink. They’re having sober events. There’s a changing culture evolving around being sober, and it’s a grassroots effort coming from the young people.

“But ultimately, fighting this problem will take a multipronged approach. It will take continued public education and awareness and talking about it. It will take people seeing us out there doing DUI enforcement and roadside maneuvers. There is no silver bullet. It takes all of us working toward trying to change our driver habits and our drinking habits. It takes a community.”

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