Nick Hornshuh, 60, began tailing the Nissan on Sixth Avenue, looking for clues in the pre-dawn fog.
The sedan drifted lazily between lanes, Hornshuh noted as he followed in an unmarked pickup. No turn signals. The car swerved and jerked, nearly missing an exit. Hornshuh, a volunteer, dialed 911.
That call in mid-September marked the sixth time in a month that tips from the city’s new civilian DUI patrol led to an arrest. Even with alcohol-related traffic deaths in sharp decline over the past decade, Anchorage police arrest about 2,000 people a year for driving under the influence. Countless others go undetected.
Chief Mark Mew had hoped for more drunken-driving callers when he launched the two-person teams in August after a series of deadly crashes across the city. But often police were unable to respond to the civilian tips fast enough to catch boozy motorists before they disappear into their driveways or side streets.
Prime time for drunken driving is 1 to 5 a.m. on weekends, an equally busy time for fights outside Anchorage bars as partiers flood the sidewalks.
“Everybody’s downtown babysitting all the kids,” Hornshuh said.
The civilian patrol gained momentum over the weekend, tipping police to another seven arrests in a record performance for the program.
What else can be done to keep people from drinking and driving in Anchorage and across the state? Here are four other ideas suggested by safety experts and/or a panel appointed by police to explore drunken-driving solutions:
1. POLICE ROADBLOCKS
In some ways, Alaska’s drunken-driving laws are already among the strictest in the country. The state requires people convicted of drunken driving to outfit their cars with ignition interlock devices (that prevent the engine from starting if alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath), spend three days in jail and pay a $1,500 to $4,000 fine. They lose their licenses for at least 90 days. Sometimes they lose their jobs.
One common tactic is missing, however. Alaska is one of only 12 states that does not set up roadblocks in DUI hot spots to catch drunken drivers.
The checkpoints generally work like this: It’s late at night somewhere in the city and few people are still on the road. Police pick a problem street, place warning signs and begin stopping cars passing through, arresting the drunks.
A Centers for Disease Control review found such checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes and deaths by roughly 20 percent.
“That’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that we never instituted in Alaska,” said Allen Bailey, a former Anchorage city attorney who co-founded the Alaska chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Bailey said he pushed for the use of checkpoints in the 1980s but city leaders have always resisted. Mew said in August that the department had no plans to start using roadblocks. That stance has softened as the department brainstorms ways to reduce drunken-driving deaths. Mew has asked the city attorney to determine if checkpoints would be allowable in Anchorage, given the strong privacy protections in the Alaska Constitution.
“It’s definitely one (idea) that we’re chewing on, we’re considering, we’re kicking around,” he said.
Critics of the practice say it violates the privacy of drivers.
“The courts have always been very suspicious of roadblocks and show-me-your papers type mentality,” said Joshua Decker, interim director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Alaska.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed roadblocks under the Fourth Amendment as long as police make an effort to publicize the checkpoints and minimize delays for sober drivers.
2. LOWERING THE LIMIT
The National Transportation Safety Board in May called on all 50 states to reduce the legal limit for driving from a blood-alcohol content of .08 to .05. Under a .05 BAC level, a 180-pound man would be too drunk to legally drive after two to three beers in a single hour, according to the University of Oklahoma. Under the current limit of .08, the same man would be legally drunk after four beers.
“The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.
At that level of intoxication, drivers are 38 percent more likely than sober drivers to be involved in a crash, the agency said.
The Alaska Legislature reduced Alaska’s drinking limit from .10 to .08 in 2001. Dropping the limit lower could be an uphill fight. Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner has said the .05 proposal is not a “practical long-term solution.”
Patrol officers who catch drunks on Anchorage roads say they rarely pull over suspected drunken drivers who blow below .08 on Breathalyzer tests. Nationwide, only 5 percent of traffic deaths involved a driver with a BAC between 0.01 and 0.07.
“The people that we look at and go, ‘Whoa, that guy needs to be stopped. They’re not the .05,’ ” Mew said.
3. TWICE-A-DAY BREATHALYZER TESTS
Searching for ways to keep convicted drunken drivers in South Dakota from repeating the crime, officials there tried something new. Repeat DUI offenders or first-timers caught driving at more than twice the legal limit were ordered by a judge to stay away from booze for three months. To make sure they didn’t drink, the drivers agreed to take a Breathalyzer test twice a day, every day. As long as they passed, they could remain free, keep their jobs and live with their families.
South Dakota’s attorney general found that repeat offenders were far less likely to get another DUI under the 2005 program.
The city of Anchorage tested the tactic in 2012, at first targeting people charged with domestic violence. So long as they proved twice a day that they hadn’t been drinking, they could stay out of jail. Prosecutors found that parents ordered to stay sober in order to keep custody of their children were the most successful in the program.
“They tended to be highly motivated to succeed,” Mew said. “Failure not only means jail, failure means losing your kid.”
The police chief said he’s interested in applying the approach to Anchorage drunken drivers as a condition of probation or bail. Participants would pay $2 to $4 a test. If they fail, police pick them up and take them back to jail, he said.
4. OVERTIME COPS DOWNTOWN
Anchorage police and bar owners agree: More cops patrolling downtown means less late-night violence and drunken driving. The problem? Someone has to pay for the overtime. Placing four officers downtown on weekends would cost about $100,000 a year, Mew estimates.
“We have to find a way to fund that,” he said.
The police chief has suggested that downtown bars could pay for the extra police through a third-party group like the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. Liquor lobbyists say bar owners already pay their fair share for public safety with the police department receiving $300,000 each year in liquor license fees.
“We’ve paid already to the locals. We’ve paid our share,” said Dale Fox, president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailer’s Association.
Another way to bankroll enforcement is by charging drinkers directly. Midtown Assemblyman Dick Traini said he is investigating a different method for funding police, rehab and other alcohol-related costs: a new city liquor tax. A 2007 effort to put before voters a 10 percent wholesale tax failed when supporters were unable to gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot.
Traini said he has asked the city attorney to determine whether a new tax proposal could be written that dedicates the extra cash to alcohol-related uses.