Public Safety

Drunken driving cases decline in Linn County

Officials attribute drop to stiffer penalties, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft

Uber’s app does not provide a tipping option, but if a passenger insists on tipping, Uber drivers are free to accept it. (Photo courtesy Uber/TNS)
Uber’s app does not provide a tipping option, but if a passenger insists on tipping, Uber drivers are free to accept it. (Photo courtesy Uber/TNS)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County shows a steady decline in the number of drunken driving cases since 2014, going from 1,027 to 742 last year — a 28 percent decrease — which is a trend the county attorney hopes will continue.

The cases filed have stayed under 1,000 since 2015, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said. There was a 14 percent drop in cases from 2017 to last year.

The number of repeat offenders also decreased, Vander Sanden said. Second offenses for operating while intoxicated — OWI — went from 219 in 2014 to 156 last year. Third offenses went from 90 to 58 during those years.

“I was encouraged to see the gradual decline,” Vander Sanden said. “I attribute it to the enforcement of the Cedar Rapids police and Linn County Sheriff’s Office, but also I think there’s been a general shift in societal attitudes towards drunk driving. I think people realize the dangers of impaired driving more now.”

Trend outside of Linn?

Vander Sanden said he didn’t know if other counties were experiencing a similar trend, but according to statistics from the Iowa State Patrol, it may be statewide.

OWI arrests by the state patrol in 2014 were 1,391, and while they fluctuate in the following years, last year’s numbers dropped to the lowest over four years with 1,260.

The Gazette obtained statistics for OWI cases filed in Polk and Scott counties during the same time period, which show a similar trend.

Polk County went from 1,937 in 2014 to 1,863 last year. The lowest year was 2015 with 1,603 cases filed. Polk also has a slight decrease in repeat offenders, with second offenses at 368 in 2014 dropping to 360 last year.

Scott County shows 611 cases in 2014 and 518 last year, which was the lowest year in the four-year period. The repeat offenders for second offenses went from 130 in 2014 to 101 last year.

Vander Sanden thought the trend might extend across the corridor, but in Johnson County, County Attorney Janet Lyness said the OWI cases have been up and down from 2014 to 2018. There were 55 more cases filed last year than the previous year — 1,165 in 2018 up from 1,110 in 2017, which is about 52 fewer cases than in 2016 with 1,217.

Stiffer penalties

Vander Sanden and local law enforcement officers couldn’t provide definitive reasons for the downward trend, but some agreed the changing laws over the years — with more jail time and bigger fines for offenses — may have contributed to the decline.

Penalties for a first-time OWI offense, a serious misdemeanor, are 48 hours to up to one year in jail and a $1,250 fine. Second offenses are aggravated misdemeanors, with jail time ranging from seven days to two years and up to $6,250 in fines. A third offense, a felony, can result in jail time from 30 days to five years, up to $9,375 in fines and having a driver’s license revoked for six years.

Pat Hoye, chief of Iowa Governors Traffic Safety Bureau, said the state continues to find “innovative solutions” to impaired driving. One is requiring all OWI offenders, not just repeat offenders, to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicles. The other is the 24/7 sobriety program, which is a pilot program in Woodbury County that requires drivers to be tested twice a day for 90 to 180 days to ensure sobriety.

That program, which was part of legislation passed in 2017, just started in Woodbury a few months ago because of some software glitches, Hoye said.

Vander Sanden said vehicular homicide laws also have become stiffer, too, because reckless driving charges can be added for distracted driving or texting while driving, which became a primary offense in Iowa in 2017.

Last year, a Cedar Rapids man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for vehicular homicide. Keith Furne, 35, was convicted by a jury in April of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury.

Trial testimony showed Furne was texting when his pickup crashed into a stopped vehicle Nov. 3, 2016, on County Home Road north of Robins. Two sisters, Selena Apodaca, 16, and Isabella Severson, 13, who were passengers in the stopped vehicle, were killed.

The teens’ mother, Jenny Perez, and many of their friends advocated to Iowa lawmakers to make texting while driving a primary offense — meaning law enforcement could make a traffic stop for a texting-while-driving violation.

Lawmakers passed the law in 2017 but rejected a bill that would have allowed only hands-free use of phones while driving. The hands-free bill is being proposed again this year.

Ride-hailing services

Vander Sanden suggested ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, also have made a difference in the number for OWI cases.

Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Al Fear said, based on his observations, Uber and Lyft have helped decrease the number of impaired drivers.

“Any given night in Cedar Rapids, you can find anywhere from 10 to 30 Uber drivers driving back and forth throughout the city,” said Fear, who coordinates the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau’s special Traffic Enforcement Program for the police department.

There have been some studies in recent years analyzing whether ride-hailing services contribute to the declines in impaired driving but there are varied outcomes.

In 2015, organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving partnered with Uber and found drunk-driving crashes for people under 30 dropped by 6.5 percent in markets where ride-hailing operations started. Two years later, a study at the University of Pennsylvania found a correlation between ride-hailing services and a decline in drunken driving but not in every city.

Hoye said the decline in arrests and cases filed also could be attributed to less enforcement because of lack of resources — officers, deputies and troopers.

Another unfortunate reason for less arrests may be time, Hoye said. Law enforcement officials say it takes time to process a drunken driver, which takes them away from enforcement and provides less time to patrol from other possible offenders.

The good news is that Iowa is well below the national average of fatal crashes that involve alcohol, which is 29 percent. In Iowa, 24 percent of fatal crashes involve alcohol, though that still means there’s work to do, Hoye said, noting that he would like to see that percentage shrink.

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