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Bars closed and traffic dropped during the pandemic, but DUI arrests are up

The ripples formed from the COVID-19 pandemic may be reaching the road.

The number of DUI arrests neared pre-pandemic levels in early summer, according to Pennsylvania State Police figures, despite much less traffic and pandemic restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants.
The number of DUI arrests neared pre-pandemic levels in early summer, according to Pennsylvania State Police figures, despite much less traffic and pandemic restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The ripples formed from the COVID-19 pandemic may be reaching the road.

The number of DUI arrests neared pre-pandemic levels in early summer, according to Pennsylvania State Police figures, despite much less traffic and pandemic restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants.

State Police recorded 420 total DUI arrests during the last week of February, shortly before Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order in March. While arrests and crashes stayed low from March until late June, DUI arrests crept back up to 407 for a week in late June — down just 3% from pre-pandemic figures recorded in February.

The numbers are “just stunning,” said Deni Carise, chief science officer at Recovery Centers of America. Many people likely are turning to alcohol “to kind of ease them” through the uncertainty of the pandemic, she said. Infrequent or moderate drinkers can become heavier drinkers as the four walls around them grow more familiar.

“For people who did not have a problem previously, I think those folks are drinking more,” Carise said. “I think they’re drinking a little more recklessly. ... I mean, the numbers are so clear.”

The state’s liquor sales spiked in March before stores closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. High demand prompted a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website crash in April, while Pennsylvanians could sip to-go cocktails from Capri-Sun-type pouches in May.

State Police provided weekly statistics on a range of incidents from March to late June with the help of a specialized team charged with collecting data through the pandemic. The effort stopped when much of Pennsylvania turned “green” by mid-June, said a spokesperson, Trooper Brent Miller. Though he could not provide weekly breakdowns since then, Miller said there were 1,333 total DUI arrests from June 27 through July 23 this year.

Miller did not have comparative 2019 data to share. There were 22,139 total DUI arrests across Pennsylvania last year.

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Asked why crashes and arrests saw more of a drop-off than DUI arrests, Miller noted that much of the state had reopened by June. “A lot of things” go into DUI enforcement, and “the numbers fluctuate,” he cautioned. State police have not changed procedures related to DUI arrests that would affect numbers, he said.

“Troopers are still out there diligently doing their jobs, looking for those individuals who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs,” Miller said.

While DUI arrests in Philadelphia by State Police were down from last year, the 37 reported in May neared the 42 recorded in February. Fifty-two were recorded in May 2019.

There’s been a slight uptick in DUI-related crashes along roads that State Police patrol in Philadelphia lately, with 12 in June compared with eight reported in February. State Police patrol I-95, I-76, I-476, 422, and I-676 in Philadelphia.

DUI arrests recorded by Philadelphia police dropped in April but rose to 132 in May, which is about 32% lower than in 2019.

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State Trooper William Butler “can’t say” that DUIs have been a new issue to arise from the pandemic. Driving under the influence is “a long-existing problem,” he said.

“Alcohol and drugs [are] not going anywhere,” Butler said. “Just because bars are closed, that’s not going to stop a person from drinking.”

Richard J. Fuschino, a criminal defense lawyer whose office is based in Center City, said he hasn’t noticed a drop in the number of DUI inquiries he typically gets. The calls to Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Pennsylvania office have been about the same, said Mila Hayes, manager of victim services there.

“We have to continue to push what people’s personal responsibility is, to always designate a non-drinking driver, to obey the open container laws that prohibit drinking in vehicles, and to monitor your guests at home or in your establishments to make sure they have a safe and sober ride home,” Hayes said. “That is always going to exist.”

There could be a number of explanations, said Matthew Hiller, associate professor in the department of criminal justice at Temple University. While the figures show “a very interesting uptick,” but with only a few months of data, it’s difficult to determine whether a trend is playing out.

But it is clear that mental-health problems have worsened, and more are using antidepressant and antianxiety medications. At the same time, aggressive driving along emptied roadways in the region hasn’t abated.

“If people are drinking more because of COVID,” Hiller said, “if they’re drinking to feel less depressed or less anxious about what’s going on, they’re going to be getting into cars and driving home, too.”

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DUIs generally rise in the summer when more people are out and slow when the weather cools, he said.

But this summer is a strange one. Drivers are trickling back to reopened workplaces and taking socially distanced vacations, but the volumes still aren’t where they once were. As of mid-July, traffic on interstates and major freeways was down 13% compared with last year, a PennDot spokesperson said. Traffic is down around 24% along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“The thing to do is to watch the fall numbers” on DUIs, Hiller said. “Let’s watch the fall, and then obviously the implications for that would be increasing treatment.”

It’s not likely that the motorists are heading to or from their favorite watering holes, either. The state recently tightened indoor dining restrictions — something residents still can’t enjoy in Philadelphia.

“As the state began to open up and people could begin to see close friends and family, it is likely that the drinking continues or is increased perhaps as a way to celebrate finally seeing one another,” said Terri Erbacher, clinical associate professor in the school psychology program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “And then individuals get into their cars to drive home.”

Could a return to “normal” routines help numbers from trending upward? It’s a possibility, but what was familiar months ago isn’t likely to return anytime soon. Unemployment remains high, and many who are working are still adjusting to a telecommuting lifestyle, which is expected to stick around.

“People don’t have a normal schedule,” Hiller said, “and a lot of people who don’t have normal schedules start getting depressed.”

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It could be a “hard hit” for DUIs if accessibility to alcohol increases, but people aren’t back to work, Carise said.

“I would expect these numbers to go up if there’s a significant amount of time where we have bars, restaurants open, but the structure of going out to work every day is not back in place,” Carise said. “I could see these numbers going up.”