ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation found the number of DUI arrests statewide has dropped nearly 50 percent in less than a decade. But Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher learned that pinning down the reason for the decline is tricky.
Georgia police made nearly 50,000 fewer DUI arrests last year than in 2008.
That sounds like the best kind of news. But are people drinking less? Or staying home? Or using popular ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft?
Uber and Lyft seem like they're everywhere.
Uber tells Channel 2 Action News that it has drivers in all of Georgia's 159 counties.
Tens of thousands of Georgians have downloaded apps for the two. Ridership is huge, especially among younger riders who know they'll be partying.
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Belcher sat down with Dunwoody DUI defense attorney Mike Hawkins to ask him if Uber and Lyft are a factor
“Absolutely,” Hawkins said
Hawkins is assistant dean of the National College of DUI Defense.
He says DUI arrests are down all over the country.
But Hawkins is convinced a significant factor has nothing to do with ride-sharing services.
“I think it’s a function of the lack of police on the street enforcing the laws,” Hawkins told Belcher.
Hawkins points to changes Atlanta made with its high intensity traffic team in 2015.
"It's hard to explain that you've got officers out on the freeway or the highway writing traffic tickets when somebody is breaking into somebody's house."
The Atlanta Police Department says the unit was not disbanded but moved out of special operations and into the field operations division.
Since then, DUI arrests by Atlanta police have plummeted by 26 percent.
“I think the challenge that we're having is that we're pulling them and pushing them in different directions, and it's harder to stay focused just on one thing,” APD Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier told Belcher.
Glazier says changing demands have diverted resources from concentrated traffic enforcement.
Probably the most pressing is an increase in violent crime.
He acknowledges DUI arrests are down but he says they’re still important.
“We've lost police officers to drunk drivers. So we understand the seriousness of it. I think the goal is to try to go after everything, if we can. The challenge, of course, is resources,” Glazier said.
The head of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety says the trend is statewide -- police just aren't putting as much emphasis on DUI's as they did just a few years ago.
“There is a problem with having enough law enforcement to prosecute DUI cases,” Governor’s Office of Highway Safety spokesperson Harris Blackwood said.
Blackwood credits Uber and Lyft and maybe better public awareness with some of the drop in DUI's, but he also contends, it's a matter of numbers.
“There's a shortage. I don't know of a police agency in this state of any size that has -- that is not looking for people,” Blackwood told Belcher.
Blackwood says his office purchased two patrol cars for the Pickens County Sheriff's Department with the stipulation that the local agency use them exclusively for traffic control. Pickens County surrendered the vehicles last year. Blackwood understands.
“It’s hard to explain that you've got officers out on the freeway or the highway writing traffic tickets when somebody is breaking into somebody's house,” Blackwood said.
Whatever the cause, the statewide decline of nearly 50,000 DUI arrests is eye-opening.
“Bigger drop than I thought. If those numbers are accurate then that's something the police chiefs ought to be looking at,” attorney Mike Hawkins said.
Georgia State Troopers, who issue the most DUI tickets, wrote more than 15,000 last year. That is down 16 percent from two years earlier. The number of troopers on the road also dropped 6 percent over that same period.
The decline in arrests doesn't seem to have had an effect on drunken driving deaths. Georgia's DUI death toll is one of the highest in the country.
Since 2010, the numbers of DUI related traffic fatalities has gone up and down, increasing from 326 in 2014 to 366 in 2015.