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DUI arrests, fatal crashes rose sharply in McLean County after COVID shutdowns

Normal Police SUVs parked
Ralph Weisheit
Normal Police reported a 30% increase in drunk driving arrests in 2021.

One of the few benefits during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was less traffic. When the economy reopened, cars were back on the roads. That also meant more drunk drivers and more fatal crashes.

Bloomington Police had the most DUI arrests in McLean County last year with 254. The department's year-to-year count dropped from 252 the year before. The arrest number was still high enough to rank Bloomington sixth among Illinois cities. Most police departments in the state saw an increase. Many saw big jumps.

Normal Police saw a 30% increase in DUI arrests last year, based on data compiled by the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM). Police Chief Steve Petrilli said it's clear more people were driving more often last year, even if many were still working remotely.

“When we look back into 2020 and some of the shutdowns that were in place in bars and places of gathering, I think that really had an impact on the amount of people that were out in those social environments,” Petrilli said.

McLean County sheriff's police saw an even bigger jump in drunk driving arrests — up 72%. That moved McLean County up to number five in the state. Sheriff Jon Sandage said most of the department’s DUI arrests happened at night though numbers fluctuate based on which officers are patroling.

“A lot of times, you get one of two officers on a shift who are very proficient in DUI arrests; that could make a big difference in your numbers,” Sandage said.

He acknowledged there were more drivers on the road last year than in 2020 and many weren't on their best driving behavior, adding that also led to an increase in speeding tickets.

“The thought crosses your mind, of course we have never proven this, but people had fallen out of practice with their good driving habits possibly,” Sandage said.

Traffic deaths increase

Bad driving habits can lead to more crashes, and more deaths. Police saw that, too. Traffic deaths jumped 18% last year statewide. McLean County saw a similar increase from 11 to 14. Statewide deaths this year are behind last year's pace, but McLean County is ahead of 2021. State data show 10 people have died on McLean County roads this year.

AAIM executive director Rita Kreslin said drunk driving or not, many motorists have picked up poor driving habits over the last year.

“When the crash fatalities climbed, they are finding that the majority of that happened because people felt safer maybe, is a good explanation maybe, that since the roads were clear that people were getting braver (while) driving,” Kreslin said.

Driving while high

Kreslin raised another factor she fears makes roads less safe: marijuana use is legal.

Kreslin worries more people could be driving while high. “People have the perception that since it’s legal, that they can do it, but they don’t realize — and they are not thinking — that even though alcohol is legal, that doesn’t mean you are able to drive and drive above a certain limit,” Kreslin said.

But police said that's not what has happened in McLean County. Petrilli said he has not seen more DUI arrests tied to legal cannabis. “I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a change in that based on the legalization, but there really is not what I could call a statistically relevant change in those numbers,” he said.

Neither has the McLean County Sheriff's Department. Sandage said it's something his officers will continue to look for.

Bloomington Police reported 11 DUI drug arrests all last year — only three were for marijuana. Sgt. Keil Nowers, head of the department's community engagement unit, said making a DUI arrest for drugs is often harder because testing on site is less reliable than a blood alcohol test.

“With marijuana, there’s a bunch of different tests that we can conduct, but they are not as exact a lot of times and it’s a little more difficult to tell with a specific breathalyzer we are able to use,” Nowers said.

If an officer orders a blood test for marijuana, Nowers said results can take weeks or months, and even if the test reveals marijuana, it doesn't mean the person was intoxicated because cannabis stays in the blood stream much longer than alcohol.

“Just because there’s marijuana present does not necessarily mean you’re intoxicated,” Nowers said. “So, it’s up to the officer to prove that.”

Nowers said that's why police rely on on-site testing to assess whether someone is legal to drive.

Illinois State Police made nearly 6,600 DUI arrests last year. That's a 10% increase from 2020.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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