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Region’s Deadliest Roads

Drunken drivers kill people in Northwest Indiana at higher rate than state, nation

From the The Region's Deadliest Roads series
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Region authorities are struggling to get ahead of drunken drivers who are causing a higher percentage of fatal road crashes in Northwest Indiana than the rest of the state and nation.

It's not a race police, prosecutors, judges and mental health officials are winning, a Times investigation of fatal road crashes in the Region shows.

From 2010 to 2014, drunken driving was linked to 35.1 percent of the deadly crashes in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, compared to 27.9 percent nationally and 25.1 percent statewide, according to a Times computer-assisted probe of federal road fatality data.

LaPorte County had the highest percentage of fatal accidents linked to drunken driving in that time span, at 39.2 percent, followed by Lake County at 35.5 percent and Porter County at 29.5 percent.

Of the 373 fatal crashes in the Region during that time period, 131 were connected to drunken driving, leading to 140 deaths.

Critics of drunken driving enforcement in Lake County in recent years have argued that prosecutors haven't done all they can to deter the behavior, and therefore the related road deaths.

Though some Region prosecutors have pledged a new, harsher posture toward such defendants in recent years, a plethora of past plea deals have meant offenders haven't seen the full extent of the law.

Meanwhile, the families of victims killed in such crashes are left with a feeling of justice denied.

Why Northwest Indiana?

In the five-year period The Times analyzed, 140 people were killed in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in drunken driving-related wrecks.

So what Region circumstances could be leading to these tragedies?

Region health and public safety experts said some answers may come from the data pertaining to drinking behavior — and the way we seek to treat those behaviors.

In 2016, the percentage of adults reporting binge or heavy drinking in Northwest Indiana was 17 percent in Lake County, 20 percent in Porter County and 19 percent in LaPorte County, according to data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The state average was 19 percent, while the top 10th of counties in the entire country averaged 13 percent.

But Bob Krumwied, president and CEO of Merrillville-based Regional Mental Health Center, said with all the focus on the opioid epidemic, alcohol abuse often is overlooked. He estimated that about two-thirds of the people his agency treats for drug addiction also suffer from alcoholism.

A 2017 study in the journal "Psychiatry" found alcohol use in the United States rose significantly between 2002 and 2013, with the researchers deeming it a "public health crisis."

Help with substance abuse can sometimes be difficult to access in the Region and state as a whole. Indiana ranks ninth-worst for the number of adults who need but don't receive treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Krumwied said there's a greater lack of treatment for adolescents.

As for why there are so many fatal accidents related to alcohol, Krumwied said, "Part of it's just the area we live in and just the high congestion and the two interstates. It's a terrible place to be if you're not an intoxicated driver. It's a death trap if you are one."

"Really it's because of the roads we have and the amount of traffic that goes through our three counties," Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds agreed. "(Interstate) 94 is one of the busiest roads in the country, and it goes through our three counties."

Lt. Steven Trajkovich, head of traffic investigations for the Lake County sheriff's office, also believes the heavy traffic in Northwest Indiana plays a role, as does the weather.

"You can have one day where it's sunny and beautiful, and the next day you have a rainstorm or ice storm. People aren't prepared for that," he said. "When you mix bad weather with drunk driving, obviously that's not a good combination."

However, the Region's fatal accident data don't show weather to be a main factor.

Of the 131 drunken-driving-related fatal crashes, 97 accidents, or 74 percent, occurred on clear days with clean roads, The Times probe shows.

Of the remaining crashes, 21 occurred on cloudy days, eight on rainy days, four during sleet, snow or hail and one during fog.

Trajkovich also said Region police agencies put less of an emphasis on enforcing drunken driving laws, pursuing grants less aggressively than their counterparts in other parts of the state, namely central and southern Indiana.

"Up here, they're more focused on the drugs and the guns, and traffic crimes kind of take a backseat to those in Northwest Indiana. They think those (other) crimes are sexier," he said.

Checkpoints as deterrents

A couple dozen cops from around the Region stood outside Dyer's Northgate Community Park on a recent, balmy summer evening, preparing to pull drivers from the road to check for the tell-tale signs of drunken driving.

Dyer police Officer Darrell Shaffer briefed the group. He told them to be pleasant and ask for their licenses and registration. He also told the team to be safe and watch each other’s backs.

The officers were preparing for a sobriety checkpoint, one of the key ways Region law enforcement agencies attempt to crack down on drunken driving — and hopefully save lives.

“We’re just trying to deter it and make people more aware,” Shaffer explained at the checkpoint. 

Shaffer said with on-demand transportation options, such as Uber, right at drivers' fingertips, there's no excuse for drinking and then endangering lives by driving.

Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, said the state is distributing more than $2 million this year to pay police overtime to conduct intensified patrols for drunken drivers and other traffic offenders under programs called Operation Pull Over, the DUI Task Force and the Summer Impaired Driving Enforcement.

Lindsay Hyer, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, said the state budgets $13 million annually to field a staff of 74 excise police officers, including nine who patrol Lake, Porter, LaPorte and nine other northern Indiana counties.

She said excise police have two federal grant programs — Stop Underage Drinking and Sales, or SUDS, and Intensified College Enforcement — that pay officers overtime for work where there is a high concentration of underage drinking.

Local police departments are left with enforcing existing laws, with sobriety checkpoints playing a big role.

Over six hours during the July checkpoint in Dyer, officers arrested two people for felony OWI and four others for misdemeanor OWI.

Police set up the checkpoints at places with high rates of crashes and OWI arrests.

"There’s a defense attorney that talks about being a bass fisherman," said Lt. Patrick Vicari, head of the Hammond Police Traffic Division. "And if you’re a bass fisherman, then you go where the bass are. In this case, if you’re a DUI enforcer, you want to go where the drunks are, which is by the taverns."

In an attempt to discourage drunken driving and its related deaths, police publicly announce such checkpoints ahead of time, though the precise locations are known only to police.

“Some people don’t like it one bit, and frankly, I don't give a s---," Vicari said. "The federal government says I can do it, so I am going to. The reason they said we are allowed to do it is to balance the interest of your personal space vs. public safety.

“Supreme Court has said that the intrusion of your privacy is outweighed by the interest of public safety, and I agree."

Vicari hopes the checkpoints act as deterrents. It's one of the only tools law enforcement has to try to stem a deadly crisis in Northwest Indiana, he said.

But enforcement on Region roads only goes so far.

Alleged offenders still face their days in court, and the results aren't always what the police, public or family of victims killed in fatal crashes are looking for.

Sobriety Checkpoint in Dyer

Police officers participating with the Lake County Traffic Safety Partnership conduct a sobriety checkpoint July 14 at Northgate Community Park in Dyer.

Sentences examined

In recent years, Times investigations showed Lake County offenders initially arrested for drunken driving regularly were offered plea deals to lesser misdemeanor charges.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter’s office previously acknowledged it would allow such offenders to plead to lesser charges of reckless driving to prevent the courts from being clogged by OWI trials.

This happened in nearly 60 percent of all drunken driving cases, a previous Times investigation showed.

Carter announced an end to the regular plea deals in July 2016 after The Times reported a politically connected union official twice benefited from such leniency.

The Times conducted a follow-up investigation at the end of that year and found fewer OWI arrests were being pleaded down to lesser charges, with 74 percent resulting in OWI convictions. Carter said a small number of cases must be pleaded down because of weak evidence.

In 2016, 9 percent of drivers in fatal crashes with BACs of 0.08 percent or higher had previous alcohol-impaired driving convictions on their records, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which suggested actual incidence of previous convictions likely is higher.

Information on convictions is available for only the prior five years, and some alcohol offenses aren't placed on driving records under court-sanctioned programs allowing drivers to either remove a previous conviction or avoid a future conviction in return for attending education or treatment programs.

Justice denied?

Meanwhile, some Region families of people killed by drunken drivers are complaining of justice denied.

Dyer piano teacher Juanita Jarecki's brother was killed by a drunken driver in 2010. Michael Berg, 62, and Bertha Hanas, 77, died instantly in Newton County when they were struck by a vehicle driven by Robert C. Robinson, then 34. Robinson was sentenced to two concurrent sentences of seven years and six months in prison. He served just over six years.

"I was just disgusted with the sentence," said Jarecki, 58. "People get way more than that for embezzling money. He killed two people. It was a bogus ruling, I thought."

Killing someone in Indiana while driving drunk is a Level 4 felony if the driver has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher or an OWI conviction in the past five years — and a Level 5 felony if the driver's blood-alcohol level is 0.08 to 0.14. Level 4 felonies are punishable by two to 12 years in prison, while Level 5 felonies can garner sentences of one to six years.

Lake Superior Court Judge Julie Cantrell said she and her fellow judges routinely have to deal with drunken drivers from the bench, and it is a very frustrating business.

"We often see the same people over and over, and nothing I say or do seems to be a deterrent," she said. "We suspend licenses all the time, but unfortunately that doesn't stop anyone from driving. I put them on work release. Or I put them on an ankle monitoring bracelet or a SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring) wrist bracelet.

"I keep them in jail, but unless they endanger someone or are a repeat offender, OWI is only punishable under state law by a 60-day sentence. And that is only 30 actual days. Some of those guys tell me they can do 30 days in the Lake County Jail standing on their heads.

"They have a sense of entitlement, and they have this sense of being empowered, almost like a superhero. They think they haven't had that much to drink. ... Nothing seems to be a deterrent."

Cantrell said state law has changed to permit the courts to use an ignition interlock that prevents an offender's car from operating if there is alcohol on a driver's breath. She said the technology has improved. It now has a camera to ensure the offender — and not someone else — is blowing into the device, and it requires the offender to blow periodically into the device to keep the car moving.

"Some people are taking advantage of that, but those are the law abiding people who make one mistake," she said. "Then there are the people who drive drunk regularly and don't care whether they have a license or not — or insurance or not."

Treating the problem?

Cantrell said the courts are experimenting with Vivitrol, a medication that blocks the receptors in the brain that crave alcohol or other drugs, as a means of alternative sentencing and treatment.

"It doesn't make them sick, and they have had a lot of success with getting serious alcoholics to stop drinking for three or four months. But it is all voluntary. It cannot be compelled, and those with liver problems cannot take it. It is not a panacea," Cantrell said.

Paula Dranger, president of Choices Counseling, said any drug that blocks a person's alcohol craving still cannot shut down deeper pain and trauma leading to substance abuse, and in some cases fatal road accidents.

Her agency sees hundreds of court-ordered OWI offenders in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

Counseling, especially if it's only the required eight sessions, isn't always effective, either.

"About 30 percent of our clients have a big wake-up call, and we don't see them again," she said. "For the other 70 percent, it’s a bell curve of how effective counseling is."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.

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