The Heat Is On recorded fewer DUI arrests in 2018 as CDOT copes with funding losses |

The Heat Is On recorded fewer DUI arrests in 2018 as CDOT copes with funding losses

Sawyer D’Argonne

The number of motorists arrested for driving under the influence may have fallen this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer drivers are taking to the roads while impaired, according to state officials.

Each year the Colorado Department of Transportation rolls out The Heat Is On campaign, a set of 14 different high-visibility DUI enforcement periods throughout the year meant to dissuade people from driving while inebriated. This year saw a noticeable decline in arrests during the periods, though the dramatic change may have more to do with declining numbers of law enforcement officers on the streets and less to do with any meaningful change in the number of impaired drivers on the road.

“It has much more to do with boots on the ground and agencies participating than any breakthrough in behavior,” said Sam Cole, traffic safety communications director with CDOT. Cole noted that CDOT typically provides hundreds of thousands of dollars to local law enforcement agencies to help put officers on the streets during heavy enforcement periods, but that the funding has dried up. “That funding was significantly reduced in 2018, which helps to explain why we saw fewer arrests.”

Cole said that in 2017 CDOT provided law enforcement agencies with more than $833,900 in funding support for increased enforcement. This year, that number saw a staggering decline to just $1,645. Cole noted that CDOT is currently looking at ways to supplement DUI enforcement with other funding sources in 2019.

“The funding to support the program basically evaporated,” said Cole, who continued to say that the funding was siphoned off to other programs in the department.

According to data compiled throughout the year by CDOT, this year saw just 7,723 DUI arrests during the enforcement periods (this number is expected to continue to rise over the coming days as some law enforcement agencies have yet to report from the New Year’s Eve period). Last year, more than 10,350 individuals were arrested during the same 14 periods.

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DUI arrests during CDOT’s The Heat Is On enforcement periods.
Sawyer D’Argonne /
DUI arrests during CDOT’s The Heat Is On enforcement periods in Summit County.
Sawyer D’Argonne /

The enforcement periods typically coincide with heavy drinking days like holidays and major events, and focus on both drunk drivers and those impaired on other substances like marijuana or illicit drugs. Law enforcement agencies participating in the campaign will use a variety of methods to try to hunt down inebriated drivers, including placing extra officers on the roads for the sole purpose of DUI enforcement, utilizing checkpoints or providing saturation patrols near troublesome areas like bars and restaurants.

But the point of high-visibility enforcement is prevention, meaning that before the periods begin, each participating agency must provide CDOT with their enforcement plans, including which methods they’ll be utilizing, where and when. The plans are accessible to the public on CDOT’s website.

“We want people to know this is going on because we want it to be a prevention program,” said Cole. “If they still choose to drive impaired they will be arrested, but we want them to make the right choice in the first place.”

So while The Heat Is On campaign may be making a difference in forcing impaired individuals to think twice before getting behind the wheel, natural fluctuations and a lack of enforcement funds for law enforcement agencies around the state may be the real culprit behind the decline in arrests.

“The best deterrent out there is the threat of arrest,” said Cole. “I’d hate to think about the number of people driving drunk without the program. But even knowing about the abilities of our law enforcement agencies to make arrests, we still have a lot of people choosing to risk it and drive impaired.”

In Summit County more specifically, though the data isn’t as comprehensive, there also appears to be a decline in impaired driving arrests for the heavy enforcement periods. From the nine periods already reported from 2018 (through the Labor Day period), there were 81 DUI arrests reported by the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, the Blue River Marshal’s Office and the police departments in Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne. During the same nine periods in 2017, there were 90 arrests.

Colorado State Patrol spokesperson Colin Remillard said that there might be reason to be optimistic about Summit’s numbers due to the increasing availability of ride sharing companies in the area, along with a push in educational programs from CDOT and CSP.

“I can say from my personal experience that the ride sharing companies have made an impact,” said Remillard. “I know that when I’m contacting them for minor traffic violations I’m encountering a lot of highly intoxicated passengers in those. That’s been a change for the better. … We’re also pushing the education more. We’re looking hard for DUIs and I think word has gotten out that it’s a priority for us. With CDOTs campaigns and our campaigns I think it’s having an impact.”

More Coloradans are utilizing new tools to stay safer on the roadways as well. Colorado’s BACtrack Breathalyzer sales — essentially smartphone Breathalyzers — grew to the highest in the nation this year following the state’s Colorado Blows Before Driving campaign, which offered discounted and free Breathalyzers to Colorado residents.

“It’s a big deal,” said Remillard. “When I tell people that we have 600 fatalities on the roads a year they’re shocked, and a big portion of those have some sort of impairment. It’s a huge issue. I get that sometimes people go out and just don’t think about it. It’s technically a traffic misdemeanor, but that’s the best outcome. It can result in hefty charges and serious consequences for bystanders and drivers. And with Uber and Lyft, there’s other ways. It’s something that’s easily avoidable.”

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