Alcohol- and drug-related driving offenses are often a hot topic around the holidays. Wrapping up the end of 2019 was like any other – holiday parties with friends and family, great food, and most likely, the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It is also the time when law enforcement remind the masses to use their best judgment and choose safe options for getting home.
After seeing a significant decrease statewide in DUI arrests from 2006 through 2016, to the tune of a 42.7% decrease, the trend slowly began to increase once again the last three years, resulting in a net decrease from 2006 of 33.4%.
Isanti County, however, continues to prove that following the trend is not the inevitable choice. A recent article published in the Star Tribune on Jan. 2, presented statewide statistics that show an upward trend in DUI arrests from 24,059 in 2016 to 27,975 in 2019 – a 14% increase. Meanwhile, Isanti County has continued to decrease their DUI arrests every year since 2006, resulting in an overall decrease of 72.1%.
Shocked by this recent upsurge, retired Isanti County Judge James E. Dehn is proud that the efforts Isanti County began in 2005 to decrease alcohol- and drug-related driving offenses is still proving to be a valuable asset to the community and the lives it protects.
MN Safe Ride is a Safe Bet
The Isanti County “Safe Cab” program, derived from the Minnesota Safe Ride Programs, began with the influence of Judge Dehn as local stakeholders were meeting for the Toward Zero Deaths initiative in 2004. The group decided that transportation alternatives were needed for patrons of local bars who would otherwise drink and drive.
Customers at participating bars and restaurants in Isanti County can receive a $10 voucher for a cab ride home. The vouchers are given out either at the patrons’ request or an employee can offer one to any patron they feel may be too intoxicated to drive.
Loren Davis, chairman of the program and a local bar owner at the time it began, has understood the importance of the program since its inception.
Receiving an award from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 2011, Davis continues to lead the way in this innovative program.
“One of the things I always say about this program is,” Davis said, “where would you rather wake up the next morning – in your bed or the Isanti County Jail?”
Since the program began, it has delivered these staggering numbers in regard to the decrease of DWI arrests. Judge Dehn attributes much of this to the valiant efforts of the program.
“We started in December of 2005,” he said, “but we started counting in 2006 – Isanti County had 367 DUI arrests then, and now in 2019, we had 105. And with Kanabec and Pine on board with Safe Cab programming, they are seeing the same trend.”
The efforts of SafeCab do not go unnoticed. Isanti County Sheriff Chris Caulk agrees that between their own efforts with law enforcement and the Safe Cab program, Isanti County is doing great things in keeping county roads a safer place than most.
“I appreciate the SafeCab program and all other programs we have that help reduce people driving while impaired,” he said.
Since its inception, the SafeCab program has delivered 37,401 patrons safely to their homes. These numbers are derived from the following counties tracked by the SafeCab program, as a total: Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne and the city of Princeton.
Possible explanation for recent increase
One of the disturbing revelations about the statewide findings of the increase of driving while impaired (DWI) arrests, is the increase in drug-related driving arrests. The statistics referenced in the Tribune article showed that out of the 27,975 DWI arrests, there was a 5% increase in drug-related driving offenses. Judge Dehn thinks he knows one of the explanations why this may be happening.
“Lieutenant Don Marose from the State Patrol is really an expert on drug recognition and teaches this,” Dehn said, “and has said that they are getting better at being able to recognize the signs of potential drugs in someone’s system.”
Caulk, who is the first vice president on the Sheriff’s Association Board, as well as the co-chair of the legislative committee, understands the numbers all too well.
“Bottom line – it does appear there are more arrests for impaired driving occurring while under the influence of a substance other than alcohol,” he said. “Also with the high level of enforcement in Isanti County and with electronic warrants, we have better tools to find those impaired drivers who are impaired by drugs or alcohol.”
Despite knowing about the increased training for drug recognition, Dehn is still surprised by the increase.
“Since I retired, I thought (the numbers) were going down,” he said. “But the whole (Star Tribune) article is all about that they have been going up for a couple years.”
Something Davis thinks might be an influence on the increase in DWI arrests is simply – location.
“I think part of it is depending upon what part of the state some are in,” he said. “It’s the lack of transportation and also the extra enforcement with some of the grant money from different programs the state gave out.”
Understanding some of the reasons that the statewide trend is going up, Judge Dehn and Davis are astounded at the fact that the trend for Isanti County continues to decrease over time, thanks to the hard work of many local community members and programs that saw a need and filled it.
“Between all of these counties, we are maintaining this decrease,” Dehn said. “And the question we are always asking is, ‘How many lives are we saving?’ We will never know. But when you get 37,000-some people home safely, I mean, who knows.”