Kansas ranks higher than most states for its response to drunken driving, a new report says, but the state is slipping.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave Kansas a B-, higher than the overall national grade of C and better than 36 other states and the District of Columbia.
But the state's grade was down from a B when the last rankings were made two years ago - in large part because the percentage of fatal crashes involving drunken drivers has increased, from 22.9 percent of crashes in 1996-98 to 24.2 percent in 1999-2001.
"The feeling is there has been a general complacency, among communities, law enforcement, even highway advocacy groups such as ourselves," said Max Sutherland, director of MADD in Kansas. "We thought we were winning."
Nationally, California had the highest grade, a B+. Montana was the lone F.
Support for a change
MADD praised Kansas for political leaders' commitment to the issue and for laws protecting victims' legal rights.
But a persistent criticism of the state in MADD's report is that Kansas has not given law enforcement officers authority to stop a car if the driver isn't wearing a seat belt. Under existing law, an officer can issue a citation for lack of seat belt use only if the driver has been stopped for another reason.
A change in that law has the support of Douglas County law enforcement officials.
"I'm not sure what impact it would have on DUI arrests because officers already look for impaired driving," Sheriff Rick Trapp said. "But I feel so strongly about seat belts that I feel it would be appropriate for the law to be changed to make it a primary offense.
"I've been around for a long time in law enforcement, and I'm absolutely convinced that seat belts - and I think national statistics bear this out - seat belts save lives," he said.
A spokesperson for Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius said no decision had been made whether to pursue such a seat-belt law.
"We would review anything that's presented to us," Nicole Corcoran-Basso said.
In Douglas County, the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff's Department combined to make 662 DUI arrests in 2001.
"It's a huge priority, as far as trying to apprehend any impaired drivers," Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick said.
The creation of a new six-unit traffic division - in which police officers will concentrate only on traffic infractions - might not lead to an increase in arrests, he said, but it could decrease drunk driving.
"It's hard to say," Pattrick said. "Oftentimes when you have a great proactive effort to apprehend impaired drivers, you have a rise in numbers. But people then learn that the odds of being apprehended increase; it tends to curb that kind of activity, and that statistic may come down."
The police and sheriff's department combine to operate eight DUI checkpoints a year, officials said.
"We have patrol people who are very proactive in arresting drunk drivers, whether we have checkpoints or not," said Sheriff's Lt. Kathy Tate.
The bottom line
Douglas County Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney said Monday she didn't have information available on how many DUI prosecutions her office did in 2001.
"The bottom line is that in any case where we have evidence to go forward on a DUI charge, we do," she said.
Many first-time offenders apply for and receive diversion from DUI prosecution, Kenney said, keeping their records clean of a conviction. But to get that diversion, offenders must agree to pay a minimum $500 fine and undergo an expensive alcohol evaluation and education class - the same penalties, minus a minimum 48-hour jail sentence, required under a first-time conviction.
"The conditions for diversion of driving under the influence are pretty strict," Kenney said.
She rattled off a series of fatal accidents from recent years that involved the allegation of drunken driving, including the 1999 accident that killed four men, including three Haskell Indian Nations University students, and resulted in a 32-month prison sentence for the driver.
"We have seen a fair amount of drunk driving accidents that have had tragic results," Kenney said. "Although you can't deter every one of those, we want to make sure that's not acceptable in our county."