An unprecedented number of police officers will cruise Valley streets starting this weekend to curb drunken driving as Arizona's second-most deadly holiday quickly follows a 2 a.m. last call at bars that began Tuesday.
“It's a combination of both — the extended hour is going to be a challenge for us, but we also know that we are one of the 12 states that has had a problem with fatalities and injuries due to impairment,” said Richard G. Fimbres, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. “That's why we are trying to get a grip on this issue.”
Last year, when eight people died on Arizona roads over the Labor Day weekend, about 40 agencies and 1,754 officers participated in the DUI task force. They worked overtime to saturate streets and conduct sobriety checkpoints, said Michael Hegarty, deputy director with the highway safety office.
This year, 77 agencies will participate, he said, adding that the exact number of officers involved was not available.
“It was also just a four-day weekend (last year), whereas this year we are doing three weekends,” Hegarty said.
The extra patrols continue through Sept. 12.
A $362,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is paying for much of the overtime as well as buying ad spots on television and radio in English and Spanish to publicize the “You Drink and Drive, You Lose” campaign, Fimbres said.
Some commercials, which started Aug. 20, have aired during Olympic coverage.
“Not only will we have more officers out on the street, but the liquor department will have the officers in the bars monitoring the sales . . . perhaps to someone who has already had too much,” Fimbres said.
Leesa Berens Morrison, director of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, on Wednesday announced the start of a program in which investigators track how minors with DUI offenses got hold of the alcohol.
“We are going to go back and punish the responsible people who furnished alcohol to the underaged,” she said. If those investigations lead to bars or restaurants, those establishments could face a possible revocation of their liquor licenses, Morrison said.
Last year, the DUI task forces pulled more than 500 drunken drivers off roads and 180 extremely drunken drivers, whose blood-alcohol content tested at 0.15 or more, Fimbres said. The legal limit is 0.08.
He said the number of drunken drivers has been on an upward trend, an issue his office is investigating.
Hegarty said Labor Day weekend historically has had a high number of fatalities because it is the the unofficial end of summer driving.