Atkins has been with the Sparks Police Department for seven years, helping out with enforcement at various special events and other activities to keep impaired drivers off the streets. His efforts garnered special recognition at Tuesday’s fifth annual Mothers Against Drunk Driving law enforcement awards.
“I like the fact that I can make an impact,” Atkins said. “It has its moments, like every job, but I look forward to going to work every day.”
Atkins and Sparks Officer Tom Crouse joined other police officers and employees from Washoe, Churchill, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties to be honored for their work in preventing drunk driving and underage drinking. Some officers made more than 50 DUI arrests in 2008, in addition to conducting compliance checks, and one deputy district attorney was recognized for securing DUI convictions.
“We want you to know how much we appreciate getting every conviction and enhancements on convictions,” said Laurel Stadler, state director of MADD. “We appreciate every impaired driver that gets off the road.”
Trooper Eddie Bowers of the Nevada Highway Patrol shared with the audience how his passion for making DUI arrests has evolved throughout his career.
“For me (at first), it was all about the numbers,” he said. “If anyone (of my fellow officers) wanted the record for DUI arrests, they had to check with me.”
But looking at a certificate from a few years ago that stated the number of drivers saved from fatal accidents, Bowers said he realized his work touched more than just 138 lives.
“I didn’t save just their lives,” he said. “Someone else around them was impacted, too. ... It changed my desire to really keep people from having this pain.”
Now Bowers gives seminars at the National Judicial College on field sobriety tests and saw at least one of his students receiving an award from MADD on Tuesday, which gives him more joy.
“But I still enjoy arresting people for DUIs,” he said. “I consider myself a triple threat.”
Local law enforcement agencies make it a high priority to identify impaired drivers and pull them off the streets through educational programs and campaign efforts.
The Nevada Office of Traffic Safety tracks the success of those measures by keeping up with the statistics of fatalities caused by alcoholic consumption or drug use.
John Johansen, an impaired driving program manager with the OTS, said the final numbers for 2008 won’t be in until the end of the year; however, some preliminary estimates are in and give officials an idea of fatalities caused by impaired drivers as well as DUI arrests made. No non-fatal crash data is kept in the OTS, Johansen said.
According to Johansen, in 2006, 15,951 DUI arrests were made statewide. In 2007, that number increased to 18,235.
In 2006, 37.6 percent of fatal accidents in Nevada were caused by impaired drivers. The percentage decreased to 32.1 percent the following year. A preliminary percentage for 2008 is 38.2 percent.
“It’s a remarkably persistent problem,” Johansen said.
Some police officers take an extra 80 hours of training to become drug recognition experts so they can more efficiently identify impaired drivers who use illegal substances or consume alcohol, Johansen said.
As the state’s population grows, Johansen said he hopes to see a reduction in the proportion of DUI-related fatalities, but it’s hard to keep up with the numbers because not all accidents as reported by the coroner may be caused by alcohol or drug use.
But there is some good news to be had at this point in time, Johansen said. As of Monday, the OTS has recorded 25 fewer fatalities for the year than at this same date last year.
“The decrease is continuing,” he said. “Some of that’s because of the change in driving habits. A whole bunch of it is because law enforcement officials are not giving up on enforcing the law.”
Programs such as Every 15 Minutes for high school students, sting operations to identify businesses that sell alcohol to minors, DUI and seat belt campaigns, victim impact panels, Driver’s Edge and free bus rides on holidays like St. Patrick’s Day all help promote public awareness about the consequences of drinking and driving, Johansen said.
Watching the numbers over time will tell whether these efforts are working, he said.
“We’re looking at the actual rate per population,” he said. “We’re going down, which simply means that rate has got to be improving, i.e. instead of having one person killed per 100,000, maybe 0.7 is getting killed per 100,000.”
The MADD awards were co-sponsored this year by the Northern Nevada DUI Task Force (NNDTF), which helps secure grants for special campaigns.
Jim Holmes, chairman of the NNDTF, recognized law enforcement for decreasing the number of fatal accidents due to DUIs, but said the local victim impact panels, which offenders must attend, have become so overcrowded that the classes have been moved from the chambers at the Washoe County Complex to the Lawlor Event Center at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“We saw 200 to 225 people a year at the panels in 1989 when it first started,” Holmes said. “Now we’re seeing about 380 a month. ... It’s a truism; you don’t have to go to Iraq. There’s a weapon at the bottom of your foot.”