DUI arrests on the rise: Despite ongoing pandemic, numbers are just shy of 2019

Even though the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in 2021, impaired-driving arrests on the Big Island have essentially returned to prepandemic levels.

According to a Wednesday statement from the Hawaii Police Department, there have been 727 DUI arrests for the year. That’s up 18.2% from the 615 DUI arrests at this time in 2020, a year in which a COVID-19 lockdown occurred, including a temporary closure of the island’s bars and restaurants.

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DUI arrests this year, however, are just 3% fewer than the 749 arrests at this time in 2019 before the pandemic, and a scant 1% less than the 735 arrests at this time in 2018. And that’s without police using traditional DUI checkpoints.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re at that spot,” said Torey Keltner, program manager of the department’s Traffic Services Section. “I think we, as an agency, are getting better at doing the enforcement stuff — I’m not saying that’s all of it, but that’s certainly part of it. We just recently had a class (to educate) drug-recognition experts. The more educated and experienced our guys become, the better they are at it.

“But the objective is to make the road safe. That’s the biggest thing I think people need to know. We’re driven to make the road safer for people to drive.”

With the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend starting Saturday, AutoInsurance.org said Labor Day is the second deadliest holiday to drive on U.S. roads behind Memorial Day. The insurance industry website described Labor Day as “20% more dangerous for driving than the average holiday,” with drunken driving accounting “for as much as 38% of fatal crashes.”

“The fact that people make a choice, wherever they are — at home, or at the beach or at a bar — if they’re drinking and driving, it just poses a huge hazard and danger to them and the other people,” Keltner said.

Out of concern that DUI checkpoints could help spread the virus, police haven’t been manning them during holiday weekends and other times as they did prior to the pandemic. Officers still will be out in force, however, as part of a strategy called “saturation patrols.”

“We do end up with quite a few DUI arrests out of the saturation patrols,” Keltner said. “What it is, we put officers in areas that are known to have a high (number of) crashes or DUI arrests, the areas where they are common. We use them to try to cut down the numbers of crashes and DUIs as best as we can.

“Through the weekend, we’re going to have several patrols that are focusing on impaired driving — speeding in particular, but any other sort of dangerous driving, as well. All the districts will be participating in this.”

The extra enforcement will be coupled with sign-waving events to remind people not to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It’s part of a campaign called “No Excuses Hawaii” — in partnership with the state Department of Transportation, all of the state’s county police departments and Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii.

“We’ll ensure it’s done properly with masks and social distancing,” Keltner said.

Sign waving will take place today between 8-9 a.m. by Keaau Middle School and between 4:30-6 p.m. by the former Walgreen’s on Kanoelehua Avenue in Hilo and by Tony Honda on Kuakini Highway in Kailua-Kona.

Family members of Cassie Ellis and Phoenix Hauanio will participate in the Kona sign-waving event.

Ellis was a 35-year-old mother killed in a Nov. 10, 2019, crash on Queen Kaahumanu Highway in Kona. A 25-year-old Waimea man driving a Jeep passed another car in a no-passing zone and collided head-on with her Honda Pilot sport-utility vehicle. Two of Ellis’ four daughters also were injured in the crash, as was another teenage girl in Ellis’ car.

The other driver, Nicholas Abarcar, was originally charged with manslaughter, first-degree negligent homicide, three counts of negligent injury and DUI, but eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree negligent homicide and three counts of negligent injury.

Abarcar, who had a prior DUI conviction, was sentenced in May to five years in prison and is incarcerated in Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu.

Hauanio was a 17-year-old girl, one of three teenagers killed in a fiery Valentine’s Day 2015 crash on Queen Kaahumanu Highway, including her friend, 17-year-old Kaela Avanilla of Kailua-Kona, and Avanilla’s boyfriend, 18-year-old Keliiokahonua Sadumiano of Ocean View, the driver of a Kia SUV that collided with a Nissan pickup truck.

Another 17-year-old girl in the Kia escaped with nonfatal injuries, as did the truck’s driver, a 39-year-old Kona man.

Keltner said one of Ellis’ family members said something that stuck with him.

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“She said, because this is a ‘no excuses’ campaign, ‘There’s no reason to drink and drive. There’s no reason to drive fast. It doesn’t save you that much time,’” Keltner recalled. “And she said — and this stuck with me is — ‘This is not new information. People know this. But we’ve got to follow what we know.’”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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