CRONKITE NEWS

Arizona increase in drunken driving deaths among highest in nation in 2021

Apr 29, 2023, 5:45 AM

Drunken driving deaths in the U.S. rose 14% from 2020 to 2021, and Arizona drunken driving deaths r...

Drunken driving deaths in the U.S. rose 14% from 2020 to 2021, and Arizona drunken driving deaths rose 43% in the same period. Experts cite several factors, but say reckless pandemic driving habits are at least partly to blame. Here, Air Force crews conduct a rescue drill in North Carolina in this 2018 file photo. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Brittain Crolley/U.S. Air Force)

(Photo by Staff Sgt. Brittain Crolley/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – COVID-19 was not the only killer accounting for an increase in Arizona deaths in 2021: A surge in drunken driving deaths on the state’s highways that year was among the highest in the nation.

Arizona drunken driving deaths rose from 295 in 2020 to 421 a year later, a 43% increase that was the fifth-highest rate among states and territories in the U.S., according to a report this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In terms of raw numbers, the additional 126 drunken driving deaths was the nation’s fourth-highest – and accounted for virtually all of the increase of 127 traffic deaths of all types in the state from 2020 to 2021.

Experts point to a variety of possible reasons for the rise, but most said restless boredom spurred by the pandemic likely triggered an increase in unsafe driving behavior, especially speeding and driving under the influence.

“The pandemic really reset a lot of people’s driving habits for the worse nationwide, and including Arizona,” said Julian Paredes, a public relations specialist for AAA Mountain West. “Unsafe behaviors like distracted driving, drunk driving, all those things were going down, up until 2020, and … we found by 2021 those habits started increasing again.”

While Arizona was an outlier, it was not unique: Nationwide, drunken driving deaths rose 14% in 2021, from 11,718 to 13,384.

Rebecca Sustayta, manager of victim services for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Arizona, said she saw an increase in the number of people seeking help after a loved one was killed or severely injured in an impaired-driving accident. For many, there is a financial burden “on top of all of this loss that people were already facing during the pandemic.”

“A lot of people end up losing their cars, they lose their home, and they have to find other places to go because they just can’t financially support their family anymore,” Sustayta said. “It’s so heartbreaking to see that happen because this is not something that this family ever did … but because somebody else decided to make that decision for them.”

Mesa Police Officer George Chwe said he was not surprised by the data. He said he typically files more driving-under-the-influence charges against people coming from home than from a bar or social gathering, because the homebodies often “thought they’re OK” and “want to go get food.” But they are not OK, and Chwe said that trend was exacerbated during the pandemic.

“I had been in our traffic unit for the past 10 years,” said Chwe, who also coordinates the Drug Recognition Experts program for the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “And even in that 10-year time period, I’ve never seen where the alcohol had surpassed our drug-related DUIs.”

Michael Scott, the director of Arizona State University’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said the pandemic created an environment where roads were emptier and fewer police were around, factors that encouraged not only drunken driving but also speeding.

Paredes said collisions are more likely to happen in states that have a high population, see lots of travelers and are more reliant on cars, all of which are found in Arizona.

But even with that in mind, Paredes said he was surprised by Arizona’s surge in drunken driving deaths given the state’s zero-tolerance rules. Chwe said Arizona police can file a DUI charge even if blood alcohol content is as low as 0.02, as long as the driver is obviously impaired.

Scott said zero tolerance policies are only as good as their enforcement, and they are “almost impossible as a practical matter to enforce.”

“There’s not going to be any arrest if a police officer doesn’t make the stop in the first place,” Scott said. “There’s not going to be any penalty if the prosecutor drops the charges or doesn’t file. So you really have to look at what’s actually happening.”

Sustayta agreed that “we can make as many policies as we want, but until people change that behavior, things really aren’t going to change completely.” One of the best ways for people to make that change, she said, is to take the time to learn more about the experiences of drunken driving victims.

“I think we just need to work as a whole to hear more of people’s personal stories and to understand that there are families on the other side,” Sustaya said.

Chwe said people tend to underestimate the amount of alcohol in their drinks and overestimate their ability to drive while intoxicated. On top of this, Chwe said the danger of driving under the influence “oftentimes gets lost” and becomes “just another number, another statistic.”

“Look at how many deaths we have, hey, these are all preventable deaths. They all are, every one of them,” he said. “And it all comes back to that very first decision that you made, you know, drinking, and then getting in the car and driving.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Cronkite News

Jose “ET” Rivera, owner of Tres Leches Cafe, speaks during a rally against an Arizona immigrati...

Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News

Arizona business owners rally against bill requiring E-Verify checks for jobs, benefits

Arizona business owners rallied Monday against an immigration bill they say will drive businesses and workers out of the state.

5 days ago

The annual Strategic School Staffing Summit, run by Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teac...

Analisa Valdez/Cronkite News

Arizona public schools struggle to fill teaching positions as leaders brainstorm school staffing solutions

Public school educators say they are some of the most underpaid and overworked laborers, and many are quitting or leaving the profession.

12 days ago

U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, backed by fellow Democrats, speaks at in Washington, D....

Ian McKinney/Cronkite News

As immigration debate heats up, December migrant encounters set record

Border officials said they encountered more than 300,000 migrants at the southern border in December, setting a one-month record.

1 month ago

The 51st March for Life begins to move from a rally and speeches on the National Mall to its annual...

Ian McKinney/Cronkite News

Roe is gone, but Arizonans still join abortion opponents marching in D.C.

For Tucson resident Jacob Mauer, joining the National March for Life in Washington was a “bucket-list moment."

1 month ago

Dominican immigrant Rosa Flores at the Disnalda Beauty Salon she bought in Providence, Rhode Island...

Tim Henderson/Stateline

Arizona among states where Hispanic families are surging into middle class

The Hispanic middle class has grown faster than the white middle class in the past decade and has reached near-parity in Arizona.

2 months ago

Live & Learn AZ, a nonprofit organization founded in 2012, aims to empower women in the Phoenix met...

Oakley Seiter/Cronkite News

Maricopa County uses part of national opioid settlement for group that helps recovering women

Live and Learn AZ, a nonprofit organization that supports women, received $60,000, as part of a national opioid settlement.

2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Arizona increase in drunken driving deaths among highest in nation in 2021