BISMARCK — Days after a West Fargo family was killed in an alcohol-related crash, officials debated Monday how to address North Dakota’s growing problem of drunken driving with some blaming society’s lax attitudes and others pushing for tougher state laws.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said last week one of his biggest concerns is the increasing number of arrests for driving under the influence in North Dakota. There were 6,600 DUI arrests reported last year, the highest in a decade and 22.6 percent of all arrests in the state.
Four days later, Aaron Deutscher, 34, his pregnant wife Allison, 36, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle, of West Fargo were killed in a car crash involving Wyatt Daniel Klein, 28, of Jamestown.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol said troopers smelled alcohol on Klein and in his vehicle.
In addition, a 30-year-old driver from Newburg, N.D., was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after a 1 a.m. Sunday accident at Lake Metigoshe near Bottineau, N.D., the Associated Press reports. Two young brothers from Texas were killed when a driver lost control of his vehicle and drove over their tent at a campsite.
It’s time everyone in the state gets together and figures out a way to address the problem, said Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association.
“Something’s not working and whether that needs to be increased penalties or a rethinking of how we deal with this problem, something needs to change,” said Birst, who went to high school with Aaron Deutscher.
Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said he’s open to reviewing the state’s penalties for DUI, but he also pointed to society attitudes as a challenge.
“Drunk driving is a terrible problem in our state, but there’s only so much laws can do to prevent it,” said Koppelman, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “We can deal with it after the fact, once it’s committed, and I think we ought to do that, but it takes societal change to make it socially unacceptable.”
Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, a former sheriff, said the state’s drunken driving problem isn’t related to law enforcement or state law but the public’s attitude about alcohol. The public needs to say “enough is enough” and end the acceptance of people driving after drinking, he said.
“To make another law, a more stringent law, is not going to make any difference until we change the mood of the public,” said Lyson, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Although about half of North Dakota’s fatal traffic accidents involve alcohol, the public has largely become desensitized to the reports in the news, said Lt. Jody Skogen of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
“Sadly, it’s events like this that jolt us into taking another look at it,” he said, referring to the recent fatalities.
Society needs to send a message that drunken driving isn’t acceptable, he said.
“They need to let their governing body (the Legislature) know, ‘We feel there’s topics that need to be discussed to make it more of a deterrent for people to hop behind the wheel,’ ” Skogen said.
Right now, the minimum mandatory sentence for a first-time DUI offense is a $250 fine and an order for addiction evaluation. The driver’s license is typically suspended for 91 days for a first offense, but the driver is eligible for a work permit after 30 days.
In Fargo, first-time offenders typically don’t serve jail time and pay about $625 in fines and fees, said city prosecutor Scott Diamond. They also attend a victim impact panel and have their license suspended.
In Stark County in western North Dakota, once fees are added, the financial penalty for a first-time offense there adds up to about $500, State’s Attorney Tom Henning said.
“It’s pretty clear to me the penalties, monetary penalties, have not kept pace (with the times),” he said.
There have been 580 DUI arrests in Fargo so far this year, up slightly from normal, Fargo Deputy Police Chief David Todd said.
He would like to see tougher penalties for repeat offenders. Right now, a Class C felony doesn’t come into play until a fifth DUI, he said. Todd also would like to see repeat offenders’ vehicles seized.
“I think there’s some things that the Legislature can do there,” he said. “I think law enforcement is holding up their end of the bargain and now maybe the Legislature needs to step up and take another look at the laws that surround DUIs.”
Law enforcement is doing what it can to keep roads safe, said Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser. Agencies brainstorm how to reduce the number of drunk drivers and are doing extra DUI saturation patrols, he said.
Grand Forks Police Lt. Grant Schiller also said he thinks the state is aggressive with its support of saturation patrols and media campaigns against drinking and driving.
“There’s always something more we can look at. What exactly that is, I can’t exactly say,” he said. “How much saturation, how much preaching or convincing can a person do to try to convey what is so painfully obvious to anybody? You just don’t drink and drive.”
The state Department of Transportation has used a number of public service announcements to try to get the message out to not drink and then drive, said Mark Nelson, the safety division director who spent nearly 29 years working for the Highway Patrol.
“I don’t know that you can do everything by law,” he said. “With that said, I think increased penalties can have an impact. Until we can get to the culture and change the way people view drinking and driving, we have an uphill battle.”