Just before 1 a.m. on Saturday, May 1, Metro police’s DUI Unit suffered a blow when Elizabeth Burleson ran a red light at Eighth Avenue South and Demonbreun Street, smashing her Saturn Ion into the driver’s side door of Officer Robert Brian Richards’ unmarked Chevrolet Impala police car.
Richards was released from the hospital later that morning, according to police, but she still hasn’t been able to resume duty on the department’s DUI Unit. Police said Burleson, 24 at the time, admitted to driving under the influence. She was later convicted of a DUI.
That same weekend, a relentless rainfall drove much of the city underwater, and in the weeks and months after the May flood, Metro police moved to 12-hour flood-recovery shifts that didn’t include DUI patrol. Meanwhile, many officers dealt with flood-related problems in their personal lives.
Officers working that Friday on extra-duty DUI enforcement — paid for with a grant through the Governor’s Highway Safety Office — were called off to other duties by Saturday. For the next two weekends, there was no extra-duty DUI enforcement under the grant, which is funded through the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. The Governor’s Highway Safety Office distributes grant monies to jurisdictions throughout the state.
The number of hours officers worked on that grant dropped by about two-thirds — from 1,582 in April to just 560 in May — and didn’t rise above 1,000 hours again until September.
Predictably, there has been a concomitant decline in DUI arrests. So far in 2010, some 1,790 fewer people have been arrested for driving under the influence than at the same time last year. Through Dec. 4, 2009, according to police records, 5,518 DUI arrests were made. This year so far, that number is 3,728.
Incongruously, the number of fatal crashes caused by impaired drivers hasn’t increased. So far this year, 40 percent of the 69 total fatal crashes have involved alcohol, according to police spokesman Don Aaron, with toxicology results in eight of the crashes still pending. In 2009, impaired drivers caused 41 percent of the 64 fatal crashes; in 2008, 36 percent of 67; in 2007, 33 percent of 67; and in 2006, 39 percent of 88.
What’s more, with fewer hours spent in extra DUI enforcement in the fiscal year 2010, Metro police spent just $799,624 of the $940,788 it was approved for in grant money for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The state keeps any unspent grant money for future use at its own discretion.
When Lt. Kenneth Walburn of Metro police’s Traffic Operations Section realized in September that there was still plenty of grant money available in the 2010 fiscal year, he nearly doubled extra-duty DUI enforcement, adding Monday and Thursday night operations funded through the grant. That month, the hours jumped back up to more than 1,400.
But Walburn may need to get more creative for the current fiscal year, after a nearly 60 percent reduction in funding for Metro police from the state grant, the result of reallocated federal money. They’ll be working with just short of $400,000.
Metro Davidson County, having the second-most auto fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities in the state behind Shelby County, receives a large portion of grant funds. And it knows what to do with them, according to Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office.
“The Metro Nashville PD has been an exemplary grantee,” Poole said, “and they’ve been good to work with. They’re very data-driven. They know exactly when they need to be and where they need to be and how to expend those resources.”
According to Elizabeth Hosmer, finance and marketing administrator for the safety office, Tennessee still received the roughly $14 million in funding from the federal government that it has in recent years. But because of the state’s lax open container law, federal regulations dictate that a chunk of those funds goes toward roadway hazard elimination, improving roadway barriers such as guardrails to help prevent severe crashes. (In Tennessee, anyone in a car but the driver can have an open container of alcohol, although local laws vary on that. The federal government would prefer that no open containers be allowed in a vehicle.)
The state receives the federal funding in several batches, and this year less money could be used toward alcohol enforcement programs (i.e. Booze It and Lose It, DUI enforcement grants). After that smaller amount was divvied up over the 300 grantees across the state, Metro was left with a much smaller grant through no fault of its own, Poole said.
With no major increase in the number of fatal crashes caused by intoxicated drivers, it’s Walburn’s hope that the DUI public awareness campaign — such as the Johnny Cash knock-off song, and the TV commercials with giant nails falling from the sky and piercing vehicles driven by impaired or aggressive drivers — is taking hold, especially heading into the holidays, a traditionally dangerous time for alcohol-related crashes.
“I don’t have any proof to say that education is causing people to make better decisions,” he said, “but that’s what you hope for — education, enforcement and then roadway engineering goes along with that, too.”