Bill Wujek’s office has had three auto fatalities this year and only one of them might have been alcohol-related — and that’s “might” because the driver was below the legal limit and crashed on a snowy road.
Wujek is La Salle County coroner and he isn’t satisfied unless the number of auto fatalities is zero. Yet he wasn’t displeased by two trends. First, the county was on pace for a roughly one-half drop from last year’s 11 fatalities. Second, alcohol is showing up less in the toxicology results.
“One bad week can change things,” Wujek noted cautiously, “but we are on a downward trend and that is most definitely welcome.”
Alcohol is indeed disappearing from the roads and the drunk-driving numbers are falling to a record low that’s turning heads at the courthouse.
A dozen years ago, La Salle County had more than 800 DUI arrests and No. 200 was in the books by Easter Sunday. As of Monday, La Salle County had 182 arrests, which marks the first time in county history we didn’t have 200 in the books by Memorial Day. The county is on pace to finish the year with 420 arrests, a new record low and less than half the all-time mark.
Drunk-driving remains historically low throughout the rest of the Illinois Valley, if not at a record low. Bureau County was on pace to finish the year with 67 arrests, a projected one-third drop from last year. Putnam County was poised for an increase, but that’s based on a projection of two more arrests than the 14 recorded last year.
Tim Gatza is among the defense lawyers who were surprised to see learn DUI totals were projected to have fallen by half in less than 15 years.
Gatza and law partner Zach Milus opened a general practice in Peru and, having both grown up in the Illinois Valley, figured the area’s once-soggy reputation would yield drunk-driving cases.
“We assumed a decent amount of the criminal work would be related to DUIs,” Gatza said. “Overall, I’d say we haven’t seen as many DUI cases as we assumed.”
Yearly DUI totals have slid in 11 of the past 13 years, giving police and prosecutors lots of time and anecdotal evidence to explain why there’s less drunk-driving.
At first, observers attributed to the decline to hard times; on the heels of the Great Recession, nobody could afford a DUI or the five-figure costs awaiting a first-time offender.
“You’d like to think that maybe people are starting to get it and that it’s not worth the cost and the risk to life and limb,” said La Salle County sheriff Tom Templeton, who said he’s personally observed some profoundly changed behavior at restaurants and taverns.
“People are eating and then they’re going home,” he said. “They’re not hanging out at the bars and being out at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. Now I’m not seeing that. You go out around 9 o’clock and there’s not a lot going at the bars.”
Then, signs appeared that alcohol has come to be regarded as passé among millennials. Bar and liquor store owners reported seeing fewer kids trying to pass fake IDs to acquire beer, wine and liquor, confirming reports of surging use of marijuana, club drugs and LSD.
La Salle attorney Doug Kramarsic said he’s definitely noticed a demographic change in terms of what substances motorists are misusing.
“When I was in high school everybody went to parties to drink,” Kramarsic said. “Today, people don’t go to parties anymore — they don’t need to with the social media — and it’s definitely shifted from alcohol to prescription medication and THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis), for sure.”
Now, marijuana is about to be legalized. Gov. J.B. Pritzker enacted a recreational cannabis bill that takes effect Jan. 1 — but nobody at the police station or the courthouse expects users to wait until New Year’s before lighting up.
“I don’t think, at least yet, that the movement to decimalization has contributed to the reduction,” cautioned Peru police chief Doug Bernabei. “But moving forward with it now becoming legal, will more people use cannabis that otherwise might not have? Yes I think so.
“And to the extent I am correct common sense will tell one that if more people start using marijuana there will be more DUI cases. It is as simple as that. Only time will tell.”