Rice County motorists better watch out.

These days, it’s not only Santa who’s watching. Area law enforcement on Wednesday helped launch the annual holiday DWI enforcement. The statewide campaign creates awareness of the dangers of impaired driving and puts extra DWI patrols from 300 agencies on the road through New Year’s Eve.

Despite the work of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Rice County residents including Kathy Cooper, of Northfield, the county’s Safe Roads Coalition coordinator, and Lonsdale’s Nancy Johnson, who has fought to strengthen legislation, there were 397 drunk driving-related traffic deaths on Minnesota roads, with 79 people killed in 2020 alone, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. An average of 384 life-changing injuries are caused by alcohol-related crashes each year.

A 2020 annual report from DPS shows that from 2013-17, Rice County officers made 1,139 DWI arrests. During that time, 26 people died in traffic crashes, five were related to drunken driving. Alcohol-involved crashes injured 28.

During last year’s enforcement, 1,588 people were arrested in Minnesota for impaired driving. And while that’s about 1,000 fewer than in 2019, there were also fewer cars on the road last year due to the pandemic and the governor’s order that restricted in-person service at bars and restaurants for the first three weeks of the enforcement wave.

More than a dozen officers from Rice County’s law enforcement agencies attended Wednesday’s meeting before hitting the road. They watched a MADD video prepared especially for law enforcement in which people impacted by drunken driving crashes talked about how their lives had changed — from lost loved ones to life-threatening injuries and continued surgeries to repair the damage done.

Faribault Police Officer Reed Bartsch was honored Wednesday by his own agency and by the Rice County Sheriff’s Office for his efforts in enforcing DWI laws. Bartsch, who has been with the Faribault department since July 2020, made 50 DWI arrests between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021.

“He has really excelled in the drugged driving enforcement,” said Faribault Sgt. Mark Krenik. “I can’t remember an officer who has been as aggressive in enforcing drugged driving (laws).”

Faribault Officer Michael Shuda, who had the highest number of DWI arrests in 2019 and 2020, made 44 DWI arrests combined.

Cooper, whose teenage daughter was killed in a 1999 drunken driving accident, praised Bartsch, and reminded the officers that behind every DWI crash is a person and their family.

A former Marine who graduated from Kenyon-Wanamingo High School, Bartsch says the key — particularly with drugged driving — is knowing what to look for when making a traffic stop.

“I just want to do my part,” he said, “and keep enforcing the law.”

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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