65 percent of Arlington’s traffic fatalities linked to drugs, alcohol

12/28/2013 4:00 PM

12/27/2013 11:11 AM

A couple and their infant daughter, heading to an Arlington grocery store, were killed in July when a drunken driver with a previous DWI conviction rear-ended their car on Interstate 30.

In June, a 46-year-old man police say had been drinking died when his pickup collided with a car, flipped and caught fire at Fielder Road and Pecan Park Drive.

Two months earlier, a 50-year-old man was killed when a drunken driver who police said had been refused service at a nearby Arlington bar slammed into his car at Watson Road and Pioneer Parkway.

These are just a few of the deaths on Arlington roads this year caused by impaired drivers, police said.

“We keep talking about this in the community, and the offenses keep happening. Something has to change. It’s just heartbreaking when you see the story behind the victims of those crashes,” Police Chief Will Johnson said.

For the past two years, at least 65 percent of Arlington’s fatality accidents have been linked to drugs or alcohol, higher than the state average of 40 percent.

The Arlington Police Department, which is averaging about 120 driving-while-intoxicated arrests a month, has launched new initiatives designed not only to get impaired drivers off the street but also to prevent them from drinking and driving in the first place.

“DWI offenses are 100 percent preventable. Every community member should be equally frustrated that we continue to be at risk of being hit by a DWI driver,” Johnson said.

“To that end, the Arlington Police Department vigorously pursues effective education, enforcement and legislative initiatives to reduce the incidence of intoxication-related offenses.”

No-refusal enforcement

In 2012, Arlington police arrested nearly 1,400 people for DWI offenses. Officials say they appear to be on track to make at least as many arrests this year.

Police have begun reassigning patrol officers from across the city to assist the eight-member DWI Unit with traffic enforcement in areas where alcohol-related crashes have occurred. The department also required all 640 police officers this year to undergo a refresher course on field sobriety testing, said Lt. Chris Cook, a department spokesman.

Police have been working with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to provide additional training to establishments, particularly in the city’s entertainment district, that have been linked to multiple DWI arrests.

Employees and managers are given tips on how not to over-serve customers and how to recognize and stop intoxicated patrons before they leave, whether by calling a cab or police.

“If we can intercept that driver before they get behind the wheel, we can prevent that crash,” Cook said.

Two years ago, Arlington switched from twice-annual DWI task forces to 12 enforcement operations tied to holiday weekends. During those no-refusal periods, the department seeks a search warrant to draw blood from a suspected intoxicated driver who won’t give breath or blood samples voluntarily.

Enforcement isn’t the only tool officers rely on. Besides billboards and social media campaigns, DWI officers are also reaching out to high school and college students about the financial, legal and potentially life-changing consequences of choosing to drink and drive.

Arlington’s efforts aren’t confined to the city limits. Because Texas leads the nation in DWI traffic deaths, including 1,213 fatalities in 2011, the city continues to push state lawmakers to legalize sobriety checkpoints as well as requiring mandatory ignition interlocks for first-time offenders.

Seventeen states require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers, and sobriety checkpoints are legal in 38 states.

“The perceived risk of getting stopped by an officer is so low, it doesn’t serve as a deterrent to stop someone from getting behind the wheel if they have been drinking,” Cook said. “If you have sobriety checkpoints, you have that deterrent factor.”

Problem bars tracked

For years, Arlington police have kept track of where drivers were drinking before their DWI arrests.

Redneck Heaven Restaurant and Bar, which opened off Texas 360 near Arlington’s entertainment district a year ago, is linked to the highest number of DWI arrests in the city, with 19 as of the end of October, according to police records.

“When those numbers are that high, those businesses are approached by us or TABC,” DWI Unit officer Kristi King said.

The information is based mostly on the word of the intoxicated driver, but in the case of a traffic collision involving serious injury or death, officers will seek out video footage, receipts or interviews with employees to determine where an at-fault driver had been drinking, King said.

On April 4, a man arrested for intoxication manslaughter in the death of the 50-year-old motorist told police he had just left Redneck Heaven, about five minutes from the accident scene at Watson Road and Pioneer Parkway. Police, however, learned that he had been refused service because he was already intoxicated when he arrived, King said.

“We don’t want the finger to be pointed at that establishment if he wasn’t there,” King said.

Of the 1,176 DWI arrests made between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, a majority of drivers said they had been drinking at home or at a friend’s, or they refused to answer.

A manager at Redneck Heaven, who declined to give his name, said the bar has been working with police and TABC to provide additional training to employees this year.

“We’re very cognizant of our responsibility. We’re close to the stadiums and stuff. If someone comes and they are intoxicated, we don’t even let them come in,” said the manager, adding that he was not aware of the reported number of DWI arrests linked to his location. “It’s just not worth it to us.”

North Arlington not alone

Arlington’s entertainment district, which includes AT&T Stadium, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Six Flags Over Texas, gets more than 6.5 million visitors a year. The crowds and the number of businesses selling alcohol mean more opportunities for drunken driving, police said.

Besides conducting bar checks to ensure that businesses have proper licensing and that customers aren’t publicly intoxicated or drinking in their parked cars, Cook said the stadiums work with the department, usually by hiring off-duty officers, to ensure that fans who might have had too much to drink have designated drivers.

“If somebody is very intoxicated, we are not going to allow them to walk out of the stadium. We ask them, ‘Who are you here with?’ and we try to reunite them with a sober person we can release them to by law, or we ensure they get into a cab so they can get a safe ride home,” Cook said.

“If we can’t ascertain that, unfortunately, they are arrested. We understand the entertainment district is very important to the city of Arlington, but we also understand the shared responsibility between the venues and the Police Department.”

No traffic fatalities this year have been linked to venues, bars or restaurants in the entertainment district, police said.

DWI officers say that although there is a concentration of alcohol sales in the district, north Arlington isn’t the only part of the city where alcohol-related crashes occur.

“There are no more in that particular area, that district. We have issues all along Interstate 20, all along 360, so to single the north district out, I don’t think that would be fair,” King said.

Rangers Ballpark at Arlington, which has drawn more than 3 million visitors each of the past two seasons, was linked to 13 DWI arrests in 2012 and nine arrests between January and August of this year, according to police records.

AT&T Stadium, which seats 85,000 people and hosts numerous sporting events and concerts in addition to Dallas Cowboys football games, was linked to only five DWI arrests in 2012 and six arrests between January and August of this year, records show.

“With the volume of people, there is more opportunity to have alcohol-related crashes and people who are drinking,” said Tiara Richard, a police spokeswoman. “We also have a higher concentration of officers at those events.”

A personal job

Officer Stacie Brown, who has worked with Arlington’s DWI Unit since it launched in 2007, understands too well the consequences of drunken driving. She became a police officer nine years after her sister, who was driving drunk, died in a crash, leaving two young daughters behind.

“I lost someone tragically to this crime I am trying to prevent,” Brown said. “My sister was a good person. She made a bad decision and lost her life. I wish every day my sister could have been stopped and arrested so she would still be here today.”

Now, Brown patrols the city streets at night and the early-morning hours, on the watch for dangerous drivers, hoping to make a difference.

“I love preventing fatalities. I love preventing DWIs. It’s all rewarding because of the loss I experienced personally,” she said.

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