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More than ever, police are targeting drunk drivers and speeders

While they concede there likely will be drunken drivers as long as there are cars and booze, Merced police officers hope their recent education and enforcement blitz ultimately will reduce the number of inebriates on city streets.

The Merced Police Department's Traffic Division also is targeting street racers and speeders through its Office of Traffic Safety grants. DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols are planned this month to slow people down and keep them sober.

Officer Perry Flowers has been part of the six-man Traffic Division for eight years and with the department more than 15 years. He estimates he has arrested somewhere between 150 and 200 drunken drivers during that time and said people wrongly believe a little bit of alcohol won't affect them.

Not so, he says.

"It's a false perception. People don't seem to learn the lesson; we catch people for second and third offenses. Drunken drivers are of any age, all walks of life, any time of the day or night," Flowers said.

Sgt. Jay Struble, Traffic Division supervisor, estimates he has arrested about 40 drunks during his 13-year career with the department.

"I don't think we'll ever get rid of drunken drivers but with more education we can reduce the number of DUIs. If you're drunk, call a cab or a sober driver, and if you see a drunken driver, notify us," Struble urged.

Motorcycle officer Craig McKeeman illustrated the public's misconception with drunken driving through a recent arrest. He said a man called his wife from a bar to say he was drunk and asked that she follow him home in her car. That didn't stop the man from being arrested for drunken driving.

The proper thing for the sober wife to have done was to give her husband a ride home.

"Every traffic stop is a DUI investigation. We might have stopped somebody for a taillight out or running a red light. We pay close attention to the odor of alcohol and are looking at objective symptoms of intoxication," McKeeman said.

Like his colleagues, McKeeman estimates he has easily arrested hundreds of drunken drivers in seven years with the Merced Police Department, three of them spent in the Traffic Division.

"With all the public service announcements you see, people still drink and drive," he lamented.

Officer Dan Dabney said drunken driving is an ongoing problem just about everywhere. That's why the Office of Traffic Safety puts an emphasis on DUI enforcement and offers grants that pay for officers' overtime to run checkpoints and buy equipment.

Dabney said another checkpoint is planned in Merced this month. He can't be more specific when and where, particularly since word of checkpoint locations spreads to local drinking establishments through patrons sending text messages to bartenders and their buddies.

During saturation patrols, the Traffic Division's six officers are deployed throughout the city looking for drunken drivers and speeders. Flowers believes these saturation patrols are even more effective than checkpoints.

Dabney and Flowers said it's easy for officers to spot drunken drivers and it's not unusual for each officer to have multiple DUI arrests during a saturation patrol effort.

More than likely someone is going to get hurt, often an innocent person, in DUI-related crashes, Flowers said. Officers are trained to look for drivers weaving, driving too slow, making wide turns and blowing through stop signs or traffic signals, key signs the motorist is tipsy.

During the 10 checkpoints held so far this year, Flowers said about 30 drunken driving arrests were made.

McKeeman said five to 10 DUI arrests usually are made during a checkpoint.

"A lot of times people don't realize two or three drinks will put them over the limit. It depends on body size and the tolerance for alcohol," Dabney said.

Flowers said officers are trying to convince young people it's not wise to drink and drive. He is in charge of the "Every 15 Minutes" program regularly conducted at local high schools, in cooperation with the California Highway Patrol.

Drunken drivers will always be with us but Flowers said he'd rather not have that kind of job security.

Grants or not, Dabney said traffic officers will continue to target speed racers. While 16th Street, G Street, Olive and Yosemite avenues are popular spots for spontaneous stoplight racing, the city doesn't have the street racing venues found out in the county.

"If you are caught street racing, you will get your car impounded for 30 days without question. We haven't had a lot of high-notoriety incidents lately but the potential is always there," Dabney said.

Struble said younger people think street racing is "the cool thing" but their driving skills haven't kept up with the speeds their cars are capable of reaching.

It's only a matter of time before something major happens with street racers, Flowers worries. With high-horsepower cars it doesn't take too much for drivers to lose control.

"If your car is stopped for illegal modifications, you may be sent to a state referee for a complete engine-emissions inspection before you can operate the vehicle lawfully on the road again," Dabney said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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