WILTON – It was shortly after 8 p.m. last Friday when Wilton police asked the driver of a white van to pull off of Route 7, park his car and step outside for a field sobriety test.
Dusk had given way to darkness and headlights illuminated the busy stretch of road as eight officers stopped every car on the street to ask the driver whether they’d been drinking. This unidentified man, clad in paint-covered pants and a striped shirt, was the first of the night to say he had been.
“I just had one beer,” he explained repeatedly, as he slapped one of his fists into the palm of his hand in front of him between rounds of following an officer’s finger with his eye.
The field sobriety test, which can take several minutes if all three parts are administered, ended there.
“It was pointless to go on with him,” said Officer David Hartman.
“He admitted to having alcohol and I smelled the alcohol when he got out of the car,” Hartman said, but once the officer began administering the test, it became obvious that the man was not legally intoxicated.
In the last three years Wilton police made an average of 72 drunk driving arrests per year – 38.6 per every 10,000 residents, , according to
Hearst Connecticut Newspapers analysis of figures reported in the state’s Annual Report of Uniform Crime Reporting Program. That’s a significantly greater frequency than the state average of 23.1 DUI arrests per 10,000 residents during that time.
“We do a really good job of cracking down on DUIs,” Lt. Stephen Brennan said shortly before the checkpoint got underway on Friday. In total, the eight-hour sweep netted one DUI charge.
But there’s still room for improvement. A survey commissioned by the Center for Disease Control in 2010 found that Connecticut residents reported driving while legally drunk at a greater rate than residents of most other states.
The 2010 study shows that 2.6 percent of residents report driving “at least once after having too much to drink” in the month leading up to the survey, tying the state with Iowa for the eighth highest rate. With that many residents self-reporting that they drive drunk, police officers around the state would have to make 260 arrests for every 10,000 residents to keep up with the patrolling.
But crime data shows that DUI arrest rates in towns and cities around Connecticut are much lower, as drunk drivers slip through the cracks.
The city of Bridgeport has the lowest arrest rate for drunk driving of all municipal agencies in Connecticut, according to the analysis. With an average of 37 arrests for the offense over the past three years, the state’s largest city has a total arrest rate of 2.5 per 10,000 residents – about one-100th what the CDC report suggests the rate would be.
“The statistics aren’t where we’d like them to be yet,” said Bridgeport Police Department Spokesman William Kaempffer. He noted that Bridgeport’s position as the largest city in the state leads to a confluence of issues that can take up officers’ time in addition to patrolling the streets for drunk drivers.
“This is something that we can and will do better with,” he said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the small city of Naugatuck had an average arrest rate of 58.4 per 10,000 residents, the highest of all communities in Southwestern Connecticut. All told, the department made 179 arrests in 2012, according to state data. And that’s a point of pride for the department.
“The philosophy here is we don’t want drunk drivers on the road, and if they are on the road, we want to find them,” said Lt. Bryan Cammarata.
While Naugatuck officers don’t single-mindedly hunt down drunk drivers, Cammarata said he feels “if you’re violating a motor-vehicle law, there’s a better chance you’re going to get caught in Naugatuck than in some of the other surrounding towns.”
In Danbury, the arrest rate falls between Bridgeport and Naugatuck at 15.8 per 10,000 residents, slightly lower than the Connecticut average, according to the state data. But Lt. Christian Caroccio said he disagrees with the state report. While the state tallied 123 arrests in 2012 and 121 in 2011, he provided records of 146 arrests each year. According to his figures, Danbury’s arrest rate figures out to a three-year average of 18.9 arrests for every 10,000 residents, inching the rate closer to the Connecticut average.
Patrolling for drunk drivers is a high priority, Caroccio said, but priorities are constantly competing in the Hat city.
“Obviously DUIs are a high priority call, because someone’s life is in danger. But if an officer is tied up for hours doing a robbery, they can’t be doing a DUI,” he explained.
With that said, if an officer happens to see signs that a driver on the street may be impaired, Caroccio said the incident is treated with “zero tolerance.”
While higher arrest rates indicate areas in the state where drinking and driving is strictly enforced, it also signals something else: A lot of people are getting behind the wheel when they shouldn’t.
“It’s getting better, but not at the rate we would like. We shouldn’t see one town with over 300 DUIs a year. That’s crazy,” said Joseph Cristalli, program coordinator for the State’s Highway Safety Office. “We shouldn’t be seeing it, but there are so many people who’ve gone undetected and the more work you put into putting officers out there, the more you’re finding.”
Back in 1984, when Janice Heggie Margolis first launched the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there were 252 people killed in alcohol-related crashes across the state. By 2011, the number was reduced to 92.
“That tells me tons,” Heggie Margolis said.
And a generation worth of education programs have helped shift the cultural attitude about drinking and driving into a social taboo, among both civilians and police, said Cristalli.
“Back in the 80s, a cop would say, ‘Hey, that’s Joe from down the street, so we’re going to let him go.’ It was a little more acceptable,” he said. “It’s not acceptable any more. People aren’t looking the other way. Now if they see Joe from down the street it’s ‘No, Joe. You’re going to kill somebody.’ It’s different now.”
That cultural shift has helped narrow the gap between incidents and enforcements, though it’s not yet closed.
“Are we there yet? Nope,” said Heggie Margolis. “But I do think that there have been major strides. I think that societal observations have changed. People are worried they’re going to get caught in a sobriety checkpoint after a few drinks at dinner, so they’re smarter about it.”