OWI Trends in Door County

The tourism industry drives a lot of commerce in Door County, but it may also be a driver behind a number of the county’s OWIs.

“Door County exceeds the national and state average for per capita arrests for OWIs,” said Door County District Attorney Ray Pelrine. “When you look at the other [Wisconsin] counties near the top of that list they have a couple things in common. They tend to be smaller counties, and they tend to be tourist destinations, like Bayfield or Walworth Counties.”

Through Sept. of 2012, half of the Sheriff Department’s 104 OWI citations for the year were issued to addresses outside Door County. In the years 2007 through 2011, out-of-county citations made up nearly 35 percent of the department’s 735 citations. Those numbers don’t take into account citations issued by the Sturgeon Bay Police Department.

“We have a lot of people that come up here kinda to try and get away, and alcohol sometimes has a lot to do with that,” said Door County Sheriff Terry Vogel. “And it seems like every weekend we’ve got a festival or something going on, and at many of those alcohol is prevalent.”

According to Pelrine, the number of high-repeat offenders – people who have been convicted of OWIs six, seven, or eight times – in the county has been climbing upward, from only one in 2006 to eight already in 2012. But a majority of OWI offenders are still first-timers.

In 2010, 139 of the 231 OWI convictions in Door County were first-time convictions, according to numbers provided by the county’s Department of Community Programs. In 2011, 95 of 171 convictions were for first-time offenders.

“One of the biggest challenges is that people really are not well educated about the limits,” said Tina Baeten, Door County Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Program Coordinator. “The majority of people are good, law-abiding citizens but don’t know much about blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or what it actually means.”

BAC is a measure of how much alcohol is in someone’s blood, and it’s used to measure, essentially, how drunk a person is. The actual amount an individual is impaired by drinking depends on a number of factors, including the amount of alcohol consumed, the person’s weight, length of time spent drinking, and whether or not the person ate recently.

A 170-pound male would have to have four standard drinks in one hour on an empty stomach to reach Wisconsin’s current legal limit of a .08 percent BAC. For a 140-pound female, it takes three drinks to reach the limit.

But when people are out for a good time, like they are on vacation, they don’t always keep track of how many drinks they’ve had.

“For a lot of them it’s their first time being involved in the legal process. These are not criminals, and they’re not bad people. They just made bad decisions and didn’t have the right information,” said Baeten. “If we could really capture groups going through Driver’s Ed and provide information for young people, I think that would have an impact.”

The total number of OWI-related citations given out by the Sheriff’s Department has been trending downwards over the last five years. In 2007, the county issued 172 OWI citations and in 2011 it issued 127. According to Pelrine, the total number of OWI court filings in the county has fallen from 358 in 2007 to 203 in 2011; however, it stands at 220 as of October 2012.

There has also been a decrease in the number of OWI-related accidents, from about 30 each year in 2007 through 2009 to only about 20 in both 2010 and 2011. Through July of 2012 there have been 12 OWI-related accidents.

Baeten said it’s possible that the increased penalties Wisconsin instituted for drunk driving in 2010 have caused less people to take to the road intoxicated. While Wisconsin’s laws are still less stringent than other states, with drivers able to be convicted of four OWIs before actually earning a felony and jail time longer than a year, increased fees and longer jail times for lesser offenses may be responsible for some changes in behavior.

“People seem to be making different choices since the law has changed,” she said. “People have recognized the consequences have increased.”

Vogel said his officers have also been noticing a number of positive trends in driver behavior.

“I know what we’re seeing more and more is officers are stopping cars with designated drivers,” said Vogel. “You’re seeing more and more people getting taxi rides home. You’re seeing more vehicles being left at these events overnight…which we did not see years ago.”

Sue Ebel of The Greystone Castle bar and restaurant in Sturgeon Bay is the coordinator of Door County’s Tavern League Safe Ride program, which is designed to fund free rides for those who have had too much to drink.

Establishments which are members of the Tavern League can apply to receive coupons that can be given to taxi drivers or designated drivers who take an overly drunk person home. The coupons can then be turned in to the Tavern League for reimbursement for the ride.

Ebel said that in 2011-12, 890 riders utilized the Safe Ride program in Door County, but those riders were mainly concentrated in the Sturgeon Bay area, where late night taxi service is available.

In the more rural areas of the county, “Good Samaritans” who take inebriated people home are eligible to receive the coupons, but Ebel said she hasn’t received many requests for reimbursement.

“We’ll get maybe a couple vouchers a month from out there, but a lot of times it’s mainly in the Sturgeon Bay area,” said Ebel.

Ebel said she’s always looking for new ways to make sure people get home from the bar safely, and she always has an eye out to make sure no one is over served.

“You keep an eye on it. You bet you do,” said Ebel. “You don’t like people getting too drunk in the first place.”

Vogel said bartenders and servers have a large role to play in preventing people from driving drunk.

“I think that’s part of the education process, too, with the bartenders and the people that are serving the alcohol – to recognize when customers have had enough and to be cognizant if they see someone who’s had too much to have somebody give them a ride home,” he said. “Or they may give them a ride home themselves, but they try not to let these guys get in a car and drive away.”

While the downward trend in the number of citations is a good thing, there’s one other statistic that Vogel says is encouraging.

“I think we’ve gone four years without a traffic [accident] fatality in Door County that’s alcohol related, and that’s unheard of,” said Vogel. “To go four years I think is a really good thing for the community. Because it’s not just law enforcement, its bartenders, and the community, and just citizens in general stepping up and making sure that their loved ones aren’t drinking and driving as much as they have in the past.”