Summit County officials say DUI problem is more than a tourist issue
FRISCO — Data collected by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice over the past few years has made it clear that Summit County, along with a number of other mountain communities in northwest Colorado, are dealing with a serious DUI problem.
As some of the worst offenders in the state, Summit County and the rest of the Fifth Judicial District — Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties — report the second highest number of DUI charges in Colorado per 100,000 residents. But what are the underlying causes of why individuals on the state’s Western Slope are seemingly more willing to get behind the wheel while inebriated?
Community leaders in the fields of law enforcement, courts and community health agree that the issue stems from a number of different variables, including the ski town party culture that is enjoyed by residents and visitors.
A tourist problem
One of the biggest factors driving the high rate of DUIs is undoubtedly Summit County’s position as one of the premier tourists destinations in the state.
“There’s a substantial impact by tourists,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “Those can be visitors from across the United States and all over the world or just people coming up from the metro area to ski for the day. It’s not uncommon for people to come up, drink too much while they’re skiing and then drive back on I-70.
“Between the après-ski point and their destination, they get stopped and arrested because they drank too much, they’re fatigued from the exercise, they’re not used to the altitude — and all that combines to make them unsafe to navigate a motor vehicle.”
Population numbers certainly lend some credence to the idea that DUI rates in the area are being somewhat swollen by the number of visitors. According to population data from 2018 — based on census data updated by the Fifth Judicial District and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments — the Fifth Judicial District has a full-time population of just over 101,000 people, but a seasonal population (including visitors and part-time residents) of more than 204,000. In Summit County, the population shift is even more pronounced, with just over 30,000 full-time residents compared with a seasonal population of more than 88,000.
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?
It makes sense that seasonal increases in population would serve as a contributing factor to the area’s overrepresentation in the state’s overall DUI arrests, especially considering the tourist draws in other trouble counties in terms of DUI rates like Gilpin County (Black Hawk), Grand County (Winter Park Resort) and San Miguel County (Telluride Ski Resort).
But there also are a number of variables that play into poor behavior by visitors, not least of which is simply the vacation atmosphere.
“I think there’s a mindset that when you’re on vacation everything isn’t quite as black and white as when you’re home,” Colorado State Patrol Capt. Jared Rapp said. “When you’re having a good time, sometimes your mind no longer goes to the consequences of what you’re doing. It goes to the continuation of that good time, and a lot of time the rest of those transportation ideas kind of fall out the window.”
Some feel the anything-goes atmosphere was perpetuated by the now-defunct marketing slogan “Colorado’s Playground.”
“I never liked that because I think part of that is a perceived permissiveness among tourists that’s been here for decades,” Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor said. “And with that comes an inordinate amount of people who come to our community with the sole intent to have a good time. And over the decades, there’s always been a certain segment or group that have had too much of a good time.”
In addition to “blowing off steam,” officials say tourists often aren’t prepared to handle their high, whether that’s because of differences in high elevation alcohol consumption or because they’re able to access things like marijuana for the first time.
“Recently, I’ve had a few cases where people are here from out of state, and they want to try legalized marijuana for the first time,” District Judge Karen Romeo said. “They’re supposed to eat an eighth of a cookie, they end up eating half of it, and they’re completely out of their minds. I had one gentleman who was 45 years old and had never been in trouble before. But he came here, tried some marijuana edible, ingested too much, and he was not coherent enough to make good decisions. He somehow got behind the wheel of a car and was fortunately stopped before he got too far.”
Part of the issue also might be a lack of education in terms of making visitors and seasonal workers — what Minor termed a perpetual “freshman class” — aware of the resources available to keep drunken drivers off the road, such as the availability of rideshare services in the area, public transportation in the Summit Stage and Breck Free Ride, or the ability to leave cars parked overnight through “no-tow” requests.
“Every season there’s a new breed of people coming in, a new crop of workers,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “Because of that revolving door in the community, it’s hard to continue to get that messaging out, and it’s hard for that messaging to penetrate because people in this community are so transient. So how do you continue to get that message out to new people?”
A local problem
Despite visitor numbers driving DUI rates to some extent, officials were careful to note that Summit County residents have to take their share of the blame, as well, in part due to a culture of heavy drinking in the area.
According to a study of county health behaviors — a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute — Summit County has a somewhat elevated number of excessive drinkers, with about 23% of adults reporting binge or heavy drinking compared with 21% in the rest of the state.
According to community leaders, that excessive drinking frequently leads to legal and safety issues among residents. Romeo noted that among all substance-use related criminal cases in the county, they’re typically broken up into three categories: tourists, “hardcore” alcoholics and local individuals who have relapsed following some time sober. The problem, however, is that substance-use related cases make up a huge majority of all criminal activity in the area.
“Certainly in Summit County, if you look at our crimes, I’d say 80% to 90% are a result of substance abuse,” Romeo said. “That’s in general, not just with DUIs. But you have to imagine it plays into that issue.”
FitzSimons, who also serves on the state’s Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, said he also believes Summit County has a problem with heightened levels of substance use.
“We monitor these statistics statewide, and we look at both prescription and illegal drugs statewide,” FitzSimons said. “They crunch the numbers from everywhere, and you can’t deny that, especially with our ski town atmosphere and reputation, there’s substance abuse here.”
Rapp, with the State Patrol, said that while drunken locals are often more difficult to spot, in part due to their familiarity with the area’s roadways, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re driving drunk any less often.
“I’ve worked up in Winter Park, I’ve worked in Durango, and now I’ve moved here to Summit County,” Rapp said. “To say it’s just a tourism issue wouldn’t be fair. I’d say the majority of DUI arrests I’ve made in my career have been local residents. That may be because a drunk driver will probably drive around 80 times before getting pulled over.
“So the ability of a resident getting arrested is going to be higher than the probability of a tourist getting arrested. But there are things that lead into that too. If you get lost as a drunk person and go the wrong way down a one-way street, that’s a bigger clue than with somebody just driving down the road like they’ve done 40 times that month. There are a lot of different variables.”
Among those variables are the community’s perceptions of risk when it comes to alcohol, marijuana and other substances. According to a 2015 report on marijuana perceptions in Summit County conducted by Corona Insights, 27% of young adults (ages 21-35) reported having ridden in a car driven by someone who had been using marijuana, and 15% reported having driven a car themselves after using marijuana. Those numbers tended to spike among survey respondents from Colorado Mountain College and ski areas, with 56% of all individuals having ridden in a car after the driver used marijuana, and 40% having driven after using marijuana.
According to the same report, while a majority of respondents viewed illicit drug use among adults as very unsafe, regular marijuana use and even daily alcohol consumption weren’t viewed with the same perception of risk.
“I think it’s inherent with a rural resort community,” said Robin Albert, youth and family manager for the Summit County Health and Human Services Department. “I do think we’ve had our challenges with alcohol, and I think our perceptions toward marijuana and alcohol are that they’re not very harmful overall. With the work we’ve done through the Healthy Future’s Initiative, what we’ve heard from young people between the ages of 19 and 35 is that there are not a lot of opportunities for pro-social events that don’t have alcohol.
“It’s kind of the culture here. We put alcohol into everything we do. So I think that’s a natural reflection of these higher DUI rates. … I would say that being in a tourist area, it’s in our faces a lot more. We have more alcohol outlets per capita than a lot of other places in Colorado, including restaurants, bars, liquor stores and now we can just get it at the grocery store. It’s just so easy to get alcohol for any of us.”
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