Troopers are worried that state budget cuts allow drunk drivers to believe they won't be caughtIn a chilling predication, area Oregon State Police commander Lt. Duane Stanton said he knew a fatal, head-on collision would happen soon in Clatsop County.
On Feb. 13, at about 6 p.m. on Oregon Highway 202 just after Milepost 3, he was proved right. A Ford Expedition driven by a suspected drunk driver slammed into a two-door Hyundai. The crash left the driver of the Expedition, Kalen Jeffery Painter, 21, trapped waist-deep in mud after he crawled out of his vehicle that came to rest in Youngs Bay.
And 73-year-old Ruth F. Guenther was dead in her crumpled Hyundai.
After being rescued by members of the Olney-Walluski Fire District volunteers, Painter was taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital where he was treated and released for minor injuries. He was then arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants, first- and second-degree manslaughter, negligent homicide and reckless driving.
It was the first fatal car accident believed to be caused by a suspected drunk driver in Clatsop County in about two years, but for Painter it was his third arrest for DUII.
At his arraignment recently in Clatsop County Circuit Court, Judge Paula Brownhill denied Painter bail. He is expected to go to trial on all three counts of DUII April 8.
"The drunk drivers are on the road," Stanton said a few days before the accident. "It's only a matter of time before they hit someone head-on."
The fatal crash shows that despite decades of efforts by special interest groups, law enforcement, parents, teachers and community leaders the dangers of DUIIs are as real as ever. And with budget cuts meaning fewer OSP troopers are on county roads these days, the challenges faced by local law enforcement to catch drunk drivers have increased.
A database of DUII arrests kept by The Daily Astorian since April offers a picture of who drunk drivers usually are - and when and where they are driving intoxicated. The newspaper began its database at the urging of senior local law enforcement officers to highlight the prevalence of drunk driving in the county.
Oregon's legal blood alcohol limit is .08 percent. That usually means a person with a body weight of 170 to 189 pounds is above the legal limit after drinking four 12-ounce beers in two hours. In Oregon it is legal for a police officer to arrest someone for DUII even if their blood alcohol is less than .08 percent if the officer believes the individual is too intoxicated too drive.
Plenty of drunk drivers, but fewer troopers
Following the OSP trooper layoffs that came after the defeat of Measure 28, Stanton's patrol staff has been reduced to five troopers. That means on any given day during the course of a week there is one lone trooper patrolling Clatsop County.
"And if he's in training or in court no one's on the road," Stanton added.
While it's impossible to know if the Astoria area OSP post had its complement of 17 patrol troopers the fatal accident that evening wouldn't have happened, Stanton does say that his department has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of people arrested for DUII whenever its staffing is cut. And, he argues, fewer drunk drivers arrested means a greater likelihood of an accident caused by one.
"These drivers are out there ... and unfortunately a significant number are not being removed," he said.
In 2001 OSP arrested 145 people for DUII in Clatsop County, which was 58 fewer than 2000's total of 203. That 28 percent drop in arrests between 2000 and 2001 nearly mirrors a 30 percent drop in the number of troopers during the same period when Stanton said his post went from 12 to eight.
"With troopers come arrests, with arrests come fewer drunk drivers on the road," he said
What makes matters worse, is that people now know how much the OSP staff has been reduced, which means they have begun to push the limits of safety while driving on local highways, Stanton said,
"It is on a regular basis that people are going over 100 mph." he said. "It's not the exception - it's the rule."
The database of DUII arrests kept by The Daily Astorian reveals that OSP and the Astoria Police Department make the most DUII arrests.
Last year there were 609 DUII arrests, based on statistics provided by the Gearhart, Seaside, Cannon Beach and Astoria police departments; OSP and the Clatsop County Sheriff's Department. The Warrenton Police Department, which does not use a computerized record system, said it did not have the total number of its arrests available.
Of those 609 arrests, the Astoria Police Department made 298 (a little less than half) while OSP's 147 DUII arrests accounted for about a quarter of the total.
Astoria Police Capt. Alan Oja said his department likely makes the most arrests because Astoria has the largest population in the county and is near about one-third of the 35,000 Clatsop County residents who live in surrounding communities such as Knappa, Svensen and Olney. Astoria also has the greatest concentration of drinking establishments, he added.
The department's commitment to training its officers to be able to identify drunk drivers probably also is a reason Astoria officers make the most arrests, Oja said.
"A couple of officers have had very extensive training in classes that deal with DUII apprehension and testing," he said. "Our department is pretty up to speed on that training."
The "average" drunk driver?
According to The Daily Astorian's database, as of March 10 there have been 212 arrests since the newspaper began tracking them. The Astoria Police Department has made 62, OSP 55, Seaside 37, Clatsop County Sheriff's Department 28, Warrenton 13, Gearhart 10 and Cannon Beach six.
Of those, 170 have been male and 42 female with more than two thirds being white. Of the minority arrests, the largest group was Hispanic, which accounted for 12 of the male arrests and one of the female.
Stanton said it's a crime that's committed by almost anyone, regardless of their social status, education or race. "It crosses all class lines, there's no real social barrier," he said.
Clatsop County residents make up more than half of the total DUII arrests - but some people from as far away as San Diego and Helena, Mont., have also been arrested for the charge by local authorities. Oregon and Washington residents from outside Clatsop County accounted for about 30 percent of the total of arrests.
Most arrests occurred on main streets or highways. Stanton said drunk drivers are usually heading home or driving to another place to continue drinking. He said in light of that, his officers usually patrol in areas such as near the junction of U.S. Highways 101 and 26, just south of Warrenton on U.S. 101 and other areas where motorists usually travel when they are moving throughout the county.
The numbers also show most DUII arrests are made on the most heavily traveled roads.
For OSP, 35 of the 55 arrests in the database occurred on either U.S. 101, 26 or 30. Astoria officers made the majority of their arrests - 24 of their 61 - on or near Marine Drive in Astoria. Seaside officers made nine of their 37 DUII arrests on Holladay Drive. No particular street or area seemed to be a recurring site for DUII arrests by the Clatsop County Sheriff's Department. Only two arrests were made on Oregon Highway 202, both just outside of the Astoria city limits.
Most law enforcement agencies in the county arrest suspected drunk drivers at a similar time as well. While DUII arrests were made at every hour of the day, most were made between 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Of the 212 total arrests about 51 percent or 108 were made in that four-hour period. Most of these arrests also occurred during the weekend with Saturday and Sunday the days with the most DUII arrests at 52 and 40 respectively. The day with the lowest number of DUII arrests, 13, was Monday.
Arrested drunk drivers for the most part are older than 21, but seven were younger, with six males and one 20-year-old woman. The youngest driver arrested for DUII was a 16-year-old boy and the oldest a 73-year-old man. For women, the youngest was 20 and the oldest was 55. The average age for a woman arrested for DUII was 30 and for men it was 36.
Based on these statistics, the average drunk driver in Clatsop County would appear to be a white male, in his mid 30s, traveling on a major roadway late at night or in the early hours of the morning during the weekend - likely the common perception many have of a drunk driver.
But, as in all crimes, the average does not mean the rule. When Painter reportedly collided with Guenther's vehicle, it was early evening Thursday on one of the less traveled highways in the county.
It just shows that for law enforcement the only thing they can do is be on constant patrol for someone who has drunk too much and decided to drive.
"It's the one thing we know we can do to save lives," Stanton said. "That's such a powerful thing, and I know every agency is doing the best it can."