Police link bar closings to drop in DWI arrests


Officers in Forsyth County made fewer arrests for driving while impaired-related offenses in March this year as compared with the same month for the past two years, according to law-enforcement statistics.

The latest available figures show that 68 people were arrested last month on charges of driving while impaired, provisional DWI for someone under the age 21 accused of driving while consuming an alcoholic beverage, and aiding and abetting DWI in which a person aids another person to drive while being impaired.

Police in Winston-Salem and Kernersville as well as Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies who make DWI-related arrests are part of the Forsyth County DWI Task Force.

The DWI-related arrests this year represent a 17% decrease from similar arrests that the Forsyth County officers made in March 2019.

Eighty-two people were charged during in March 2019, as compared with 106 people in March 2018, the statistics show. That was a 23% decrease in DWI-related arrests.

“March typically is a slower month for the DWI Task Force, but I can definitely say that the closure of the bars and restaurants has made a huge impact with our arrests,” said police Sgt. Michael McDonald, a task-force member. “The closure of these establishments (amid the coronavirus pandemic) has forced our citizens to do exactly what we have tried to accomplish through education and enforcement, which is to stay home and/or drink responsibly.

“The ones we have encountered thus far in April, have been through vehicle crashes and not staying home as directed,” McDonald said.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order has reduced traffic on roads and highways locally and statewide.

District Attorney Jim O’Neill of Forsyth County said that local law enforcement officers have been effective in enforcing DWI laws.

“The community has come to realize that drunk drivers will be caught and prosecuted in Forsyth County,” said O’Neill, a Republican candidate for N.C. Attorney General in the November election.

The presence of companies such as Uber and Lyft has provided an alternative means for people to travel without driving their own vehicles, O’Neill said in an email.

“As a result, people are finding safer ways to get home after consuming alcohol, rather than drive the roads and streets in an impaired state,” O’Neill said. “Our community has come to realize that the Winston-Salem Police Department and the DWI Task Force and this prosecutor’s office will not tolerate drunk driving on the streets in our neighborhoods.”

Sgt. Christopher Knox, a spokesman for the N.C. Highway Patrol, said that his agency is pleased by the decrease of DWI-related arrests in Forsyth County.

“It would be difficult to isolate a specific reason as to why alcohol-related arrests are down from years 2018 to 2019 and 2019 to 2020 for the month of March,” Knox said in an email. “Although as an agency, we put great value in the need for the strict enforcement of alcohol-related offenses, we also pride ourselves on our continued focus on education with regards to the destructive consequences of driving while impaired.”    

Knox also pointed to the highway patrol’s statistics about the traffic collisions involving alcohol.

In 2018, there were five alcohol-related fatal crashes in Forsyth County, Knox said. In 2019, there were two alcohol-fatal crashes in Forsyth.

“(The) numbers for this year would be preliminary, but these are the trends that we value and are seeing across the state as a whole,” Knox said.

“Our goal has and always will be that zero lives are lost in traffic crashes across our state,” Knox said. “This idea … is shared by our partner agencies at the state, county and local levels.”

Lori Brown, a state program specialist for the Mothers Against Drunk Driving in North Carolina, also sees several factors in the decreasing numbers of DWI-related arrests in Forsyth County.

The increased use of ride-share programs such as Lyft and Uber is a factor in the decrease, Brown said in an email.

“We are seeing that people are using these apps and getting safe rides home,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, most of North Carolina is more rural and these programs are not available.”

Another factor is that many law-enforcement officers are spending many hours in court, in training or covering special events rather than stopping suspected drivers who are impaired, she said.

“The trend we have been seeing across the state that has had a negative impact is the fact that a majority of our law-enforcement agencies statewide are short on officers and have several open positions,” Brown said.

“This puts a strain on the agencies and not having enough officers to cover the hours equals less stops.

“This not only impact DWIs but all traffic safety violations.”

With a statewide stay-at-home order in effect this month, there are fewer cars on the roads and fewer crashes happening, Brown said.

“Hopefully a positive result of this crazy time will be that people learn to stay at home if they are consuming alcohol or using drugs,” Brown said.

Journal reporter Scott Sexton contributed to this story.