Summit County has among the highest rate of DUIs in the state of Colorado

Editor’s note: This is part one in a four-part series about the problem of impaired driving in Summit County and Colorado’s mountain communities.

DILLON — Summit County is one of Colorado’s worst offenders when it comes to drivers choosing to get behind the wheel while drunk or high.

Over the past few years, only a few Colorado counties have surpassed the rate of DUI arrests in Summit, and many of those communities also happen to be in the mountain region. State officials are trying to shine a light on impaired driving offenses in the area, in part through improved data collection.

Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014, the Colorado Task Force on Drunk and Impaired Driving identified a lack of data on DUIs as a major knowledge gap for policy makers. In 2017, the state Legislature pushed forward with efforts to address the problem, mandating that the Division of Criminal Justice begin collecting and analyzing specific data in regard to impaired driving. The first reports were published in 2018 and 2019 — analyzing data from 2016 and 2017, respectively, to allow time for cases to be adjudicated — providing policy makers broad information on the scope of DUI cases in the state for the first time.

This is the first in a four-part series on DUI offenses in Summit County that will provide a dive into the potential causes of why DUIs are more prevalent in the mountain region than in other areas of the state, how law enforcement agencies in the county are working to address the problem, what the adjudication of DUI cases looks like from arrest to sentencing, and what’s next in the fight against impaired diving.  

What is a DUI?

In Colorado, a driving under the influence offense, is defined by statute as driving a vehicle when a person has “consumed alcohol or one or more drugs … that affects the person to a degree that the person is substantially incapable, either mentally or physically … to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control, or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle.”

The state also includes DWAI, or driving while ability impaired offenses, into DUI data. Colorado largely defines DWAIs similarly to DUIs but with broader language in that drugs or alcohol “affects the person to the slightest degree so that the person is less able than the person ordinarily would have been … in the safe operation of a vehicle.”

The statutes also set explicit limits for allowable alcohol and THC levels. In regard to alcohol, drivers could receive a DWAI or DUI charge if their blood alcohol concentration rises above 0.05 or 0.08, respectively. In regards to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol — the principal psychoactive compound in marijuana — law enforcement officers base arrests on observed impairment and no “per se” limit, though drivers who are found with more than five nanograms of active THC in their blood can be prosecuted with a DUI.

Statewide data

According to a statewide report issued by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, there were a total of 26,454 DUI cases in the state in 2017, a small decline from the 27,244 cases in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, the state’s largest counties by population also were the worst offenders when it came to the total number of DUI offenses. In fact, with the exception of Denver County, five of the top six most populated counties in the state also composed the top five list of most DUI charges, including El Paso (3,074 in 2017), Adams (2,830), Jefferson (2,597), Arapahoe (2,413) and Larimer (2,052).

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?

In taking a closer look at the demographics of DUI offenders, there appear to be some noteworthy trends that stick out. The first, and perhaps most discernible, is gender. Men make up a huge majority of DUI offenses (74.4% statewide) compared with women, a trend that held up across age groups.

While most DUI case filings involved individuals who were of legal drinking age (92.1%), individuals who were between 18 and 20 years old actually had the highest rate of DUI cases, with 1,135 cases per 100,000 residents compared with 885 cases per 100,000 residents for individuals 21 and older. But taking a look at the age distribution of all DUI cases in 2017, the number of male and female defendants peaked at age 24 followed by a steady decline as age increased.

There are also a large number of repeat DUI offenders in Colorado. Of the more than 37,000 individuals who received a probation assessment as part of their DUI charge in 2016 and 2017, more than one-third had a previous DUI offense. Just more than 30% had either one or two prior offenses, and over 6% had three or more prior offenses. As the number of prior offenses increased, so did the number of male offenders. In 2017, of the 1,212 people who were arrested with three or more prior offenses, 86% were men.

While the statistics surrounding age and gender point to identifiable trends in the most common DUI offenders, other data points like education don’t provide the same insights, especially given the small sample size. With just minor variations between 2016 and 2017, individuals with no diploma or GED certificate represented the smallest portion of DUI offenders (18.5%), followed by individuals with at least some college education (38.6%) and individuals with a high school diploma or GED certificate (43.3%).

Nearly two-thirds of total DUI case filings in 2017 were linked to a toxicology breath or blood test. In looking at the types of substances Colorado motorists drove on in 2017, alcohol was far and away the most prevalent. Of the individuals who were only on one substance at the time of their DUI — a statistic that should be looked at with some criticism given that law enforcement officers often will forego a more complete toxicology report if alcohol abuse is obvious — 90% were inebriated on alcohol. Marijuana was the next most common drug, comprising 7.2% of DUIs tied to a toxicology report. Among polydrug users, alcohol and marijuana was by far the most common combination for DUI offenses (40.6%).

A Summit County problem

While the total number of DUIs in areas around the Front Range might seem like a concern, bigger populations largely help to drive those totals. But when you negate population sizes, the mountain region stands out as the biggest trouble area in the state.

“I think it says that we have a lot of work to do on issues surrounding substance abuse,” said District Attorney Bruce Brown, who noted that the DUI rate is somewhat inflated by the number of visitors who get DUIs in the area. “I think we need better treatment, of course. And we need to keep focusing on how we build events and create geography that discourages drinking and driving. … They’re two separate issues.”

In 2017, only three judicial districts reached 1,100 or more DUI case filings per 100,000 residents. All three were in northwest Colorado, in the 14th (Grand, Moffat, Routt), Ninth (Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco) and Fifth Judicial Districts (Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit).

Of note, Summit County ranked fourth among counties in 2016 and fifth in 2017 in the state in terms of DUI rate per 100,000 residents, according to the statewide report. More recent data provided by the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office shows that the trend likely isn’t a fluke.

Despite some minor deviations from the state’s data — potentially caused by the state’s inclusion of DUI cases alleging a blood alcohol concentration below the threshold for adults ages 16-21, according to District Attorney Bruce Brown — the district has remained one of the state’s worst for DUI offenses.

From 2015 through 2019, Summit County had 2,156 cases where an individual was charged with a DUI or a related charge. In total, the Fifth Judicial District is ninth out of 22 districts in terms of the total number of DUIs charged. But the district also charges the second highest number of DUIs per 100,000 residents in the state. In 2019, Summit County was the worst offender in the district with 464 DUI cases compared with Eagle County’s 436.

“We have to continue to try and reduce those numbers,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “Those numbers are unacceptable in our community, and they should be unacceptable to everybody. So we need to keep working on ways to reduce the number of people driving while intoxicated, through education, awareness, stigma and enforcement. We’ve all got to do better.”

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