Rising DUI arrests, wrecks have state police stepping up patrols on Route 28 from Etna to Harmar
A 55 percent increase in DUI arrests in the past year and rising numbers of wrecks have state police stepping up roving patrols on Route 28 from Etna to Harmar.
Speed and drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs are making the 7-mile stretch — with seven exits — a more dangerous place, according to state police in Kittanning, who patrol the highway.
Only seven days apart, a 22-year-old Indiana Township man and a 19-year-old Etna woman were killed in accidents last month in the Sharpsburg and O'Hara sections of the highway.
State police are investigating the causes of those accidents.
Driving the increased police patrols in the southern segment of Route 28 is the herd of speeding motorists.
Recently, a state trooper in just one shift nabbed 22 motorists traveling at least 20 mph over the 55-mph speed limit, said Sgt. Darren Burford with state police in Kittanning.
And during a 30-hour security detail on southern Route 28 this month, troopers issued 37 speeding citations, 15 other citations and one DUI.
“People should be aware at this time we're taking a stance of zero tolerance down there,” Burford said. “There's going to be very few warnings issued down there.”
The problems with speeding motorists stem from the sheer number of cars that use that stretch: Average daily traffic from the Etna/Route 8 exit (5) to the Highland Park bridge is 43,000 vehicles and just south of the Harmar exit (11) is 34,000 vehicles, according to PennDOT.
“There's a lot of merging traffic there,” Burford said. “If you're inattentive for a second, then you're going to wreck.”
Police will continue to beef up patrols for the foreseeable future, Burford said.
The overtime patrols on Route 28 will be paid for though PennDOT's statewide distribution of $4.2 million in federal funds from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Last year, state police made about 40 DUI arrests from Jan. 1 to early March on Route 28 from Etna to Harmar. This year during the same time period, authorities tallied 62 DUI arrests, according to Burford.
Statewide, DUIs have gone up modestly by 5 percent in the last year, according to Trooper Adam Reed, a public information officer with the State Police in Harrisburg.
“I don't necessarily know if there are more impaired drivers or better enforcement,” said Reed.
According to West Deer police Chief Jon Lape, one of the coordinators of the North Hills DUI task force, whether the numbers are up a little or down, DUI is a persistent, stubborn problem.
The task force had three DUI arrests March 15 kicking off St. Patrick's Day in the southern portion of Route 28 and Shaler.
“We do see an increasing number of DUIs in our area,” Lape said. “It's not shrinking, let's say that.”
Traditionally, people have been arrested for DUIs early in the morning after leaving a bar. Now it's around the clock, and police are finding more people impaired by drugs.
“The shift is toward DUI during daylight, someone is impaired on marijuana and other drugs.” Reed said.
DUI arrests just for alcohol are about the same in Western Pennsylvania, but DUIs involving drugs, known as DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) are on the rise, said Cathy Tress, law enforcement liaison with the Pennsylvania DUI Association.
Statewide, while alcohol-related crashes decreased from 2005 to 2011, from 13,350 to 11,800, drug-related crashes increased from close to 2,100 in 2005 to almost 3,100 in 2011 — an almost 48 percent jump.
The question is, are more people getting high and driving or are police better trained to detect drug use?
“The level of DUID arrests is going up because training of local and state police has improved over the years,” said Tress, whose organization helps trains police.
“Now, they're able to determine if a person is incapable of safe driving if impaired on a drug,” she said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.