CHP officer checks suspected drunk driver
A CHP officer checks a suspected drunk driver. Courtesy CHP

An uptick in DUI arrest rates and excessive speeding citations occurred around San Diego County during March and April, even as fewer drivers were on the roadways due to stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

San Diego police, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol all had moderate increases in their DUI arrest rates in March and April compared to the same two months in 2019, 2018 and 2017, according to an analysis of data requested from those agencies.

SDPD arrested an average of three DUI drivers for every 100 traffic infractions in those two months the previous three years, but saw that rate jump to 4.71 during March and April this year.

The California Highway Patrol logged a similar rise in DUI apprehensions, with the rate increasing from about six DUI arrests for every 100 infractions the three previous years to 7.66 this year.

The Sheriff’s Department saw the most dramatic rise. It had a rate of about six DUI arrests for every 100 infractions during the two-month span in 2019, 2018 and 2017, rising to 11.79 DUI arrests for every 100 infractions this year.

The reasons behind those increases remain unclear, but some law enforcement officials said fewer vehicles on the road might have helped officers catch intoxicated drivers.

“When we’re out there with less motorists, it’s easier to spot more of who is weaving or swerving on the roadways,” said Salvador Castro, public information officer for the CHP San Diego office.

Jake Sanchez, public information officer for the CHP Border Division, agreed with that assessment.

“If that’s the only car out there on the roadway in front of me, it’s going to be a lot easier to observe and make sure that person is driving appropriately,” Sanchez said.

SDPD Traffic Division Sgt. John Perdue said he has noticed a change in the areas where a majority of DUI drivers are apprehended.

“It’s kind of an odd thing because … we typically get more DUIs out of the areas that have a lot of bars.” Perdue said. “However, I’ve noticed now some of the DUIs we get are near the fast-food restaurants.”

He said in his experience, the drivers have usually been drinking at home before stopping to get food, despite the availability of food delivery services such as UberEats, Postmates and Doordash.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said she has also noticed a troubling new trend involving DUIs this year. In a six-week span from May 4 to June 17, there were seven deaths from DUI-related crashes in the county, she said.

“I actually don’t recall a time that we’ve had that many in a short period of time,” Stephan said. “So that’s of a lot of concern.”

From January through April, the county recorded five DUI-related deaths — down from eight, 12 and seven, respectively, in the same time period in 2019, 2018 and 2017, according to data provided by the D.A.’s office.

The deadliest DUI crash so far this year happened around 8:30 p.m. on May 5, when a driver fatally struck a 50-year-old woman, her 33-year-old boyfriend and her 10- and 11-year-old grandsons in Escondido while allegedly under the influence of an unspecified drug.

Deputy District Attorney Laurie Hauf said at Ashley Rene Williams’ June 10 arraignment that the 28-year-old defendant was driving on a suspended license due to a previous DUI drug conviction.

Speeding tickets have also taken a jump this year compared to overall traffic infractions.

CHP officers throughout the county issued 920 tickets to drivers traveling over 100 mph in March and April, compared to 505 and 390, respectively, in the same time frame in 2019 and 2018.

“Growing up in Southern California myself and knowing how traffic has always been since I first started driving 30 years ago, to see this light amount of traffic on our highways, it’s weird. You’re not used to it,” Sanchez said. “(The speeding) is something we will probably have to keep dealing with as long as the freeways are as open as they are now.”

Perdue said he has also seen drivers speeding more frequently on roadways in the city of San Diego.

While the overall number of speeding tickets issued by SDPD is down this year, speeding violations over 65 mph represent a greater percentage of overall traffic infractions.

During March and April this year, SDPD issued 395 tickets for drivers going over 65 mph. That represented 7.3% of overall infractions, while the rate for those violations was 3.44% in 2019, 4.02% in 2018 and 4.38% in 2017.

“It’s a little insane. I couldn’t believe the uptick in speeding citations and the speed itself,” Perdue said. “I still tell (drivers) ‘Be cautious. Just because it’s an open roadway you still want to drive with your safety in mind.’”

Like many services and programs throughout the county, DUI awareness and prevention programs have had to adapt to guidelines discouraging face-to-face interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some (programs) are working out and some have had to take a backseat during this COVID time,” Stephan said.

One of the affected programs was a live DUI sentencing with a real defendant that would have taken place at a local high school. Stephan said her office has talked about converting to a Zoom format, but no immediate plans have been finalized.

The SDPD suspended DUI checkpoints in recent months, but continued saturation patrols, during which officers conduct traffic stops in targeted areas and look for signs of impaired driving, Perdue said.

“Since bars were closed, we just didn’t want to expose officers to such a mass quantity of drivers,” he said.

However, the SDPD plans to hold its first DUI checkpoint in roughly two months from 11 Thursday evening to 3 a.m. Friday at an undisclosed location.

The CHP has continued to post DUI awareness messages on social media and has replaced its in-person educational talks with Zoom sessions, Sanchez said.

“It is, in a sense, a good thing that we’re kind of adapting and we’ll now have better ways, or other ways, of reaching the public, as well,” he said.

— City News Service