Chattanooga DUIs rise despite dip in drunk driving arrests statewide

A sign comparing the costs of a taxi ride and a DUI conviction is seen on the back window of a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle painted to resemble a taxi during a news conference with members of the Chattanooga Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Georgia State Patrol on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., discussing DUI enforcement efforts during the holiday season.

DUI arrests in Hamilton County

2014: 9712013: 1,0142012: 1,1592011: 9542010: 881Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation


2015: 27,9172014: 29,7212013: 28,739Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Crashes involving alcohol in Tennessee

2015: 6,4962014: 6,6612013: 6,9812012: 7,3672011: 6,887Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol

Fewer Tennesseans were arrested for driving under the influence in 2015 than 2014, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Law enforcement officers arrested 27,917 people for driving under the influence in 2015, which is about 1,800 fewer arrests than 2014, according to the TBI's just-released annual report.

The number of statewide traffic crashes involving alcohol also dipped - the Tennessee Highway Patrol recorded 6,496 alcohol-related crashes in 2015, compared to 6,661 in 2014.

But in Chattanooga, the number of DUI arrests and the number of people killed in alcohol- or drug-related crashes went up during 2015.

Of the city's 36 traffic fatalities in 2015, 17 people died in crashes that involved drugs or alcohol - including six people in one crash on June 25, according to police. In 2014, seven of the city's 25 traffic fatalities involved alcohol or drugs.

DUI arrests rose from 739 in 2014 to 791 in 2015, said police Lt. David Gibb. But he said the number of arrests fluctuates a bit each year, and he thinks both the state and city numbers are within the normal range.

"That's a relatively small number," he said. "I'm not putting too much on that."

This year, police are poised to begin a department-wide strategy to target traffic safety.

Starting Tuesday, patrol officers will focus on particular corridors for traffic enforcement. The corridors will be chosen by police crime analysts based on the frequency of overall crashes, serious injury crashes, drug- or alcohol-related crashes and fatal crashes, Gibb said.

The goal it to increase police visibility in those areas 24-7, he said, to drive down the number of crashes.

"The normal people who drive through there every day, they're going to see blue lights no matter what time of day it is," he said. "We're not necessarily looking to write tickets, even though these officers will write them. If we stop one person, depending on the time of day, 50 people may see those blue lights."

The police department also is asking the city for money to buy more radar units for patrol cars, Gibb added.

At the state level, 337 people died in traffic crashes involving drugs or alcohol in 2015, said Kate Richie, state program director for the Tennessee division of Mothers against Drunk Driving. Another 5,657 people were injured in such crashes, she said.

The annual TBI report shows that only a small slice - just 6 percent - of the 2015's DUI arrests have been decided in court. But of that slice, more than 99 percent of people were convicted of driving under the influence or a lesser charge.

Richie said the 99 percent conviction rate isn't a good indication of how DUI prosecutions are handled across the state because it looks at such a small percentage of total cases and because it includes convictions to lesser charges.

"A lesser offense could be reckless driving," she said. "That doesn't give the big picture. It could be their third DUI and they pled down to their first."

But she said she thinks, overall, the state is improving its DUI enforcement.

"As a state we're definitely growing stronger in our crackdown on drunk drivers through our partnerships, through legislation and through public awareness," she said. "We see all that collaboration is helping."

The Tennessee Highway Patrol, which waged a high-profile campaign against drunken driving during the holidays, is scheduled to conduct one no-refusal sobriety checkpoint in Hamilton County in March, according to state records.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.