Drunken driving rates at the University of Minnesota are increasing again after several years of decreased activity, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, University police said.
“It means we’re starting to catch drunk drivers more often again,” said University police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner.
After averaging 187 DUIs a year on campus from 2002-06, University police have seen fewer and fewer DUIs each year. There were only 40 last year, a number that was already surpassed by July of this year.
But Miner said the primary reason for the decline in DUIs was not fewer drunken drivers but less police enforcement because of a lack of resources.
“There was one simple reason for the decline,” Miner said. “Defense attorneys constantly challenging the validity of the equipment we used to detect alcohol.”
The Intoxilyzer 5000, the primary breathalyzer instrument used by police throughout Minnesota for 15 years, has been challenged by defense attorneys since 2006, Miner said.
A Northfield man charged with a DUI alleged that the device was unreliable because there wasn’t access to its software, according to The Associated Press. The case led to court disputes in more than 4,000 other DUI cases until the Minnesota Supreme Court finally ruled the device was dependable in June.
But by the time the court ruled in favor of the Intoxilyzer, its reliability had been questioned so much that the state ordered all precincts to replace it, Miner said.
“We had a sort of mortatorium of the use of breathalyzer instruments,” Miner said.
He said the legal challenges against the Intoxilyzer made arresting people on suspicion of drunken driving a much more complicated process. Officers would have to take drivers to the hospital to get blood and urine tests to prove that they had been drinking.
“There was only so much time at night for our officers to be out looking for drunk driving,” Miner said.
Over this past summer, University police finally began using a replacement instrument, the BAC DataMaster. Since implementing the DataMaster, the number of DUI arrests on campus has increased slowly each month, though not dramatically, Miner said.
However, Miner said he was just glad to have an up-to-date tool to test for drunken driving again.
“We have a good system now,” Miner said. “It definitely eases some of the concern we may have had before.”
Students, especially those who ride bikes on campus at night, said they were relieved to hear University police have a reliable method to catch drunken drivers.
“I’m surprised they weren’t using the tools necessary to properly enforce DUIs,” said Tim Jackson, a finance sophomore at the University. “You need to have a reliable system, especially the way drinking in Minnesota is.”
He added that he’s definitely going to remain cautious of drunken drivers when he bikes home at night, even with the DataMaster technology in place.
Aswar Rahman, a history sophomore, said he and his friends deliberately avoid biking in certain areas at certain times to avoid the danger.
“There are little rules you come up with to stay safe,” Rahman said. “Avoiding major roads, don’t bike late on Fridays and Saturdays, that sort of thing.”