Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 11:48 am | Partly Cloudy 60º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Santa Maria Police Step Up Drunken Driving Enforcement in a Number of Ways

DUI arrests jump in 2014 as SMPD adds 30 officers, uses a state grant to pay for checkpoints and rolls out roving ‘saturation patrols’

Santa Maria police Sgt. Mark Streker leads the Traffic Bureau, which tracked an increase in drunken driving arrests in 2014, compared to the prior year. Streker credits DUI checkpoints with raising awareness. “Our objective is not to arrest DUIs at a DUI checkpoint by the droves,” he says. “Our objective is to ... stop the DUI drivers before they get in the car.” Click to view larger
Santa Maria police Sgt. Mark Streker leads the Traffic Bureau, which tracked an increase in drunken driving arrests in 2014, compared to the prior year. Streker credits DUI checkpoints with raising awareness. “Our objective is not to arrest DUIs at a DUI checkpoint by the droves,” he says. “Our objective is to ... stop the DUI drivers before they get in the car.” (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Maria has seen a sharp rise in the number of arrests for suspicion of driving under the influence, but the trend may be attributable to beefed up enforcement efforts rather than a spike in the number of drunken drivers on local streets.

Some 500 people were arrested on DUI charges in 2014, compared to 366 in 2013, according to the Santa Maria Police Department.

Sgt. Mark Streker, who leads the Traffic Bureau, said a lot of factors likely contributed to the climb.

He said SMPD had more officers on the street, having added some 30 in 2014. The big influx has meant more trained, younger, energetic officers on the job, he explained.

It’s too soon to say whether the higher number means more drunken driving, or a better response by police, he added.

“I don’t know if our ... increase is part of a trend or if perhaps we were so short-staffed over the past five years or so that we were not keeping up,” he said. “It’s really hard to say which it would it be ...

“Either way, it’s a good thing for us.”

Statewide DUI numbers aren’t available for 2013 or 2014, but the 2012 ranking shows Santa Maria is second among 56 cities of similar size for fatal and injury accidents and fifth among 56 cities for alcohol-involved traffic incidents, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety.

For crashes involving those under 21 years of age who used alcohol, Santa Maria ranks first.

Police agencies throughout California saw traffic enforcement units trimmed as cities dealt with the economic downturn, according to Chris Cochran from the Office of Traffic Safety.

“It’s only now they’re beginning to come back up again,” he said.

Cochran noted that Santa Maria ranks high in several categories compared to cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000. With an estimated 102,000 residents, Santa Maria is Santa Barbara County’s largest city.

“Santa Maria has a problem,” Cochran said.

To help stem the city’s traffic-related woes, last fall the Office of Traffic Safety awarded Santa Maria a $378,000 grant for assorted traffic enforcement operations, including several aimed at nabbing drivers under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.

The grant has funded DUI checkpoints where police so far have screened 1,900 vehicles among the 4,600 that passed through the sites from Oct. 1 through March 31.

In the first six months of the grant period, Streker said SMPD has conducted 17 DUI saturation patrols plus four DUI checkpoints, arresting 30 people.

A supervisor chooses locations for the checkpoints based upon the intersections or streets with a number of DUI arrests or collisions.

In a 12-month period, he added, they plan to hold 19 checkpoints.

“Those really bring an awful lot of public awareness,” Streker said.

Checkpoints are typically announced beforehand and shared on social media sites, which Streker said is part of the strategy.

“People will ask me oftentimes, ‘Doesn’t that kind of throw a wrench in your checkpoint?’” he said. “My response is ‘No, that’s exactly what we want.’

“Our objective is not to arrest DUIs at a DUI checkpoint by the droves. Our objective is to put the awareness that we are out there in full force doing DUI enforcement and stop the DUI drivers before they get in the car.”

For skeptics who wonder if pre-announced checkpoints actually get drunken drivers off the streets, Streker said two recent arrests prove the value of such operations. One checkpoint caught a driver with a blood-alcohol content of .26 while another recorded a .17.

A blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent is the legal limit in California.

“They had no idea they had just pulled into a DUI checkpoint,” Streker said, noting the very dangerous situation for officers at the scene. “It’s just that one occasion that we get one person, we like to think we stopped an accident from happening.”

In addition to screening vehicles that pass through a checkpoint, police conduct “roving DUI saturation patrols,” which involve putting more officers on the streets seeking those driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

SMPD plans to conduct 30 such patrols on random occasions and may even do them the same night as checkpoints, he said.

“The DUI roving saturation is our most effective DUI enforcement strategy,”​ Streker said.

And the numbers are climbing — a roving DUI saturation patrol April 4 ended with four arrests for suspicion of DUI.

DUI collisions in the city jumped to 162 with 35 injuries in 2014 from 114 with 22 injuries in 2013. In the first three months of 2015, the city logged 50 DUI-related crashes with 13 injuries — putting it on pace to reach 200 by year end.

The number of collision reports taken in 2013 totaled 1,875 with 426 injuries and seven fatalities — two blamed on drugs, one on alcohol and one on street racing. The next year, police took 1,758 collision reports with 437 injuries and four fatalities, including one blamed on driving while under the influence of drugs.

In the first three months of 2015, officers have handled 475 reports of crashes with 103 injuries and one fatality blamed on street racing.

The Traffic Bureau — already one of the most high-profile units in the department as city leaders field complaints about red-light runners, speeders, street racers and other bad driving habits —  is getting a boost with a fifth officer already added and a sixth expected by July.

Plans call for adding two patrol officers in cars to focus solely on traffic issues at night and adding two more motorcycle slots to the Traffic Bureau.

Streker noted that a recent study determined that cities holding regular DUI checkpoints have seen at least a 10-percent reduction in the number of alcohol-related crashes.

“As far I’m concerned a 1 percent (reduction) is good,” he said. “If we’re at 10 percent, that is a pretty impressive number. If that’s working for us, then perhaps the 500 DUIs we had in 2014, maybe it was going to be more than that if we hadn’t been doing our DUI checkpoints.

“I think it’s making a big difference.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

A map pinpointing the location of DUI-related collisions in Santa Maria in 2014. (Santa Maria Police Department illustration)
A map pinpointing the location of DUI-related collisions in Santa Maria in 2014. (Santa Maria Police Department illustration)

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.



Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >