Mich. crash deaths rise; cops cracking down on drunk driving

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Law enforcement and traffic safety agencies are asking motorists to make sure they arrive and return from their destinations safely as Labor Day — the deadliest for holiday traffic crashes in Michigan since 1972 — approaches.

The “Do a 360” campaign is the latest in the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over crackdown. Starting Friday and running through Labor Day on Sept. 4, officers in Michigan will be ticketing suspected drunk drivers. The campaign was announced Thursday at a news conference at the Anchor Bar in downtown Detroit.

Michael L. Prince, Director, Office of Highway Safety Planning and Anchor Bar owner Vaughn Derderian talk after the "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" campaign press conference at Anchor Bar in Detroit, Michigan on August 17, 2017.

The campaign launches just as National Safety Council preliminary crash statistics show that Michigan is out of step with the dip nationally in traffic deaths.

Cmdr. Elvin Barren of the Detroit Police Department warned drivers of legal troubles and costs associated with even a first citation for driving under the influence, including up to 93 days in jail, a $500 fine, points on their driving record and 360 hours of community service. 

Michigan’s campaign  comes just days after the National Safety Council released preliminary crash statistics for the first half of 2017. The numbers show that miles driven are up 1.7 percent nationally, compared to 2016, while fatalities are down 1 percent.

For the first six months of 2017, Michigan was up 6 percent in traffic deaths and up 20 percent compared to 2015, according to the safety council. Weekly figures released Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Transportation found that Michigan's 622 fatal car crashes are 5 percent more than at a comparable point in 2016.

Of the 980 fatal car crashes in Michigan in 2016, 251 were alcohol-involved, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Since 1972, Labor Day weekend has been the most deadly holiday for motorists in Michigan, with an average of 19 fatalities. That edges out July 4 weekend (18) and Memorial Day weekend (17). Thanksgiving weekend had an average of 18 fatalities, but is a four-day weekend unlike the others, which are three-day weekends.

Vaughn Derderian, the owner of the Anchor Bar, chosen, campaign organizers said, to drive home the drinking and driving part, said his father Leo told him in 1969: “Alcohol is the worst drug God created — and we’re going to sell it.”

That accepted risk, he said, puts the onus on bar staff to serve patrons responsibly and not become part of the problem. Calling cabs for patrons unable to drive, or refusing service to those who come in drunk or become drunk is part of the job.

Michael Homan, director of fleet operations for DTE Energy, says drunk drivers are a constant concern for Homan, who oversees 4,500 fleet vehicles for DTE employees who travel 40 million miles a year for the company.

“Getting to and from work, getting to and from jobs, is one of the most hazardous things we do,” Homan said. 

Labor Day weekend, Homan said, brings its own mix of risks.

“It’s an end-of-summer, last hurrah mentality,” Homan said. “Roads are often dry, which adds to a heightened sense of security” which can lead drivers to take undue risks. Commuters often travel with extra gear and passengers or haul boats. 

And parents whose children start school the Tuesday after Labor Day may be pressed to get home faster. 

The Office of Highway Safety Planning is spending $720,000 on publicizing the traffic safety campaign and $650,000 to fund  overtime for officers, said director Michael Prince.

But while law enforcement is part of the picture, the hope is that people will see the campaign  and  choose to drive safely.

“If we wanted to just pull people over, we would’ve spent all the money on law enforcement,” Prince said. “We’d rather have people just get home safely.”


How to travel safer (and not get a ticket) on Labor Day weekend:

* Arrange a designated alcohol and drug-free driver

* If there is no designated driver, call a cab or use a ride-sharing service

* Make sure all passengers are wearing seatbelts

* Be well-rested

* Don't talk on the phone while driving, even if using a hands-free device

* Stay alert; focus and vigilance are preferable to an inflated sense of security

Sources: National Safety Council, Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, DTE Energy, Detroit Police Department