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In the year that followed Mayor Eric Garcetti’s closure of bars and restaurants on Mar. 15, 2020, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department recorded 1,745 cases of drunk driving. This represented a 21.5% decrease from the drunk driving cases tallied in the previous 12 months. Moreover, Garrett Dameron, who oversees the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office DUI Training and Prosecution Section said the number of overall criminal cases filed by law enforcement fell by 15% last year.
Sgt. Michael Downing of the LASD Traffic Service Detail attributed the general decline in DUIs over the past year to the stay-at-home orders and, even as restrictions have been eased, the inability for bars and restaurants to resume pre-pandemic levels of service. “With bars closed and restaurants closed, there’s fewer places for people to drink,” he reportedly said. “They’re drinking more at home if they are drinking at all, and they’re not driving from a bar to go home, so we saw a decrease pretty much countywide.”
One big unknown is what happens with the reopening of Los Angeles County and more people back on the road. Downing said that there could be an increase in DUIs as bars, restaurants, and other businesses open up.
However, just because people have not been driving under the influence of alcohol does not mean they weren’t doing it under the influence of other substances. Dameron noted that people arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, rather than alcohol, have held steady or increased during the pandemic. After the 2016 legalization of recreational marijuana use in California, the number of misdemeanor DUI drug cases sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office nearly quadrupled, from 285 in 2017 to 1,018 in 2018.
In a way, the pandemic year has accelerated a trend, as annual DUI cases in Los Angeles County have been decreasing from a high of 3,153 in 2011, according to LASD data. Since then, cases have fallen by 40%, to 1,897 in 2020. One reason overall numbers declined the last decade, Downing said, is the growing popularity of ride-sharing apps, which made it easier for bar-goers to get home without getting behind the wheel. A Crosstown analysis showed that the increased use of services such as Uber and Lyft beginning in 2012 coincided with a steady drop in DUI arrests.
A DUI can have serious consequences for a driver. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, people confronted with a DUI charge face an average of $13,500 in fines and penalties, plus attorney fees. Driving while under the influence of alcohol or other substances can lead to car crashes, which can result in serious injuries or even death. According to Responsibility.org, there were 1,069 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in California in 2018.