Sometimes, the occupants of a vehicle may reek of adult beverages and their side effects, but the police officer who pulled them over has no arrest to make.
The driver is sober. This carload of drinkers planned ahead. And it may be happening more often.
Police who conduct blanket patrols and roadside checks under the state’s program to stop drunken driving say they’re seeing more parties relying on a designated driver to get them home.
That seemed to be happening in Saratoga Springs during Super Bowl weekend, normally one of the biggest weekends of the year for people overindulging in game sponsors’ products.
“We did not get anyone, and we detained literally dozens of people,” said Sgt. Andrew Prestigiacomo, head of the city’s traffic safety patrol. “We see a ton of designated drivers.”
The city police had the same thing happen last weekend, when a downtown Beer Week promotion was culminating. There were arrests for marijuana and other offenses during vehicle stops, but no drunken driving arrests.
Mechanicville Police Chief Joseph Waldron, chairman of the Saratoga County Traffic Safety Committee, said something seems to have changed in the last few months.
“Maybe it’s the high-profile crashes, but it’s something,” he said. “They’re planning ahead, and that’s a good thing.”
Several recent high-profile cases in Saratoga County, including a 14-year-old girl killed while walking on the side of the road and two Shenendehowa High School students killed in a horrific crash on the Northway, have involved allegations of drunken driving.
Police agencies throughout the region regularly conduct special operations or boost patrols under the state’s STOP-DWI program.
STOP-DWI uses fines collected from convicted drunken drivers to pay for additional anti-drunken driving efforts, from education to patrols.
State police don’t have hard numbers to back it up, but there’s a general impression that years of effort at warning people about the consequences of drunken driving — fines, jail time and higher insurance premiums, as well as the threat to themselves and others — may be sinking in.
“In the whole picture — with blanket patrols, public education and other proactive measures — we have noticed that there’s a trend, more so around events and holidays where people are planning on consuming alcohol,” said Trooper Mark Cepiel, spokesman for state police Troop G.
There’s also been a long-term trend toward more designated drivers in Albany County, though no recent dramatic change, said Lt. Terry Thompson of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, administrator of that county’s STOP-DWI program.
“I think we have noticed more parties using designated drivers,” he said. “But we’re still making a lot of arrests on holidays and weekends.”
During the Feb. 2-3 Super Bowl weekend, when there was a nationwide enforcement effort, Thompson said Albany County police agencies stopped 714 vehicles, and made 29 DWI arrests. The agencies also recorded 58 designated drivers in their stops, he said.
Thompson said an officer can generally use such indicators as eyes and speech to determine when a driver is sober, even if the vehicle and its other occupants smell of alcohol.
The next big law enforcement crackdown on drunken driving is expected to come the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. The Saratoga County Traffic Safety Committee has announced plans for extra patrols across the county that weekend — and the county won’t be alone, though other agencies don’t necessarily announce their plans.
“I would expect us to be out there,” said Thompson.
State police haven’t announced any crackdown plans, but don’t be surprised. And they won’t be surprised, either, if at least one of the honorary Irish stay sober the weekend of March 17, since it’s the kind of holiday for which people plan ahead.
“It falls into the category of days when people come out and know they will be consuming alcohol, and they make appropriate arrangements,” Cepiel said.