Michael Shuda

Faribault Police Officer Michael Shuda stops a driver in November 2018 during a DWI enforcement wave. While the driver was not cited, DWI arrests in Rice County and statewide increased in 2019. (Daily News file photo)

Impaired driving arrests were up across Minnesota in 2019. And Rice County was no exception. In fact, DWI arrests in Rice County increased by nearly double the statewide percentage, reaching their highest level since 2011.

According to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Rice County officers conducted 268 arrests for driving while impaired, up from 245 a year ago. Statewide, a report released last week found 27,975 arrests for DWI.

That number is well down from a peak of around 42,000 DWI arrests in 2006. DWI arrests have risen over the last few years, although law enforcement says that’s partially due to vigorous enforcement and enhanced technology.

However, the state’s numbers also indicated that DWIs were down during the holiday season’s extra enforcement campaign. Just 2,353 DWI arrests were made from Nov. 27 to the end of the year, the lowest in the last 5 years and 400 fewer than last year.

A report released last month by U.S. Drug Test Centers, one of the nation’s largest drug testing firms, showed that about 1 million people were arrested in 2018 for DWIs. About 80% of those arrested were white, 75% were male and 60% were between the ages of 21 and 39.

One factor in the recent increase in DWI arrests has been a significant increase in the number of arrests of drivers impaired by substances other than alcohol, such as cannabis, methamphetamines and opioids.

The number of drugged drivers on Minnesota roadways has been on the rise for more than a decade. According to the Department of Public Safety’s data, the number of drug-impaired drivers arrested from 2013 to 2017 was 78% higher than from 2008 to 2012.

Even though drugged driving is still relatively rare compared to drunken driving, data suggests it’s extremely dangerous. A 2018 report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration found that more fatally injured drivers tested positive for drugs than for alcohol.

In 2017, Minnesota changed its law to make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on drugged driving. Prior to 2018 officers had to determine the substance of intoxication to make an arrest, but now they only need to conclude that a person is impaired.

Local law enforcement say they believe that the increase in DWI requests is a result of increased enforcement. Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said that for his department, DWI arrests were up from 2018 but actually down from 2017.

Bohlen attributed the increase to newly hired officers who have actively searched out drunken drivers. He pointed to Faribault Officer Michael Shuda, who was honored by Rice County’s law enforcement agencies for making 21 DWI arrests in 2019, the largest number of all officers in the county last year.

Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson agreed, saying that thanks to additional local and state funding, Rice County law enforcement agencies have been able to hire more officers in recent years. Those officers, in turn, have been able to take on extra shifts to root out drunk drivers.

He said that increased enforcement has been particularly effective because the department has worked to pair it with education. During special events, law enforcement have worked with First Choice Shuttle and other transportation companies, notably during Defeat of Jesse James Days, to help more people get home safely.

With such a wide variety of transportation methods available, Nelson said there’s no excuse to drive intoxicated. He says it’s vital for people to plan ahead if they’re planning on going to a party, because the risks of intoxicated driving just aren’t worth it.

“There’s a lot of ramifications for driving drunk,” he said. “Legal ramifications, monetary ramifications, and sometimes personal injury and death. We ask people to think twice and take care of each other.”

Despite the progress that has been made, Kathy Cooper of the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition was still disturbed by the number of arrests for intoxicated driving in 2019. Cooper said she’d expected an increase in arrests, but was surprised by the extent of the increase.

More than two decades ago, Cooper lost her teenage daughter Meghan to a drunk driver, who later admitted to smoking marijuana on the day of the accident. For Cooper and others who have lost loved ones to intoxicated driving, the pain never goes away.

“This is everyone’s problem and everyone should be concerned about it,” she said. “If you’re out there driving and have your family and loved ones on the road you should be concerned.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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