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Recent tragedies cast long shadow on efforts to curtail impaired driving

Sean Doogan
A magnetic sticker on a police cruiser features a photo of Marcia Mausali, one of four people killed so far this year by drunk drivers in Anchorage. The stickers are part of an effort by the Anchorage Police Department to crack down on drunk drivers. August 16, 2013 Loren Holmes photo

A rainy Saturday morning was supposed to bring hope to people who want to put an end to impaired driving in Anchorage. The evening before, a candlelight vigil was held to remember two local teens killed instantly, earlier this month, when a man accused of driving drunk struck them on a bike path they'd been following home after back-to-school shopping. Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew, at the rally, announced an intensified effort to target drunk drivers in Alaska’s largest city.

“We need to channel our anger and grief into something that will produce real results. Our goal is zero deaths and injuries,” Mew said at the Friday vigil where he pledged extra police officers and a cadre of civilian volunteers to keep watch for impaired drivers. Over the next two days there were 33 DUI arrests.

But all of that was overshadowed by another drunk driving crash on Saturday morning.That’s when Anchorage Police said 34-year-old Christopher Kenny was driving his Ford pickup too quickly as he rounded a bend in Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, not far from the East Anchorage headquarters for APD and the Alaska State Troopers. Police said Kenney was drunk when he lost control of his truck and crashed into a fence. Kenny was pronounced dead at the scene, though his passenger was not seriously hurt.

Kenny's death came a week after two 15-year-olds, Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr, were struck and killed by Stacy Allen Graham, 31, who crashed into the girls on an Abbott Road sidewalk. Graham had been driving erratically, according to APD, and had three-times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.

APD’s increased DUI patrols will continue across the municipality until the end of Labor Day Weekend. Using federal grant money, the department has added extra patrol cars to target impaired drivers.

But the police have some help. People who have been through the department's citizen’s academy have begun to drive the city's streets, voluntarily serving as lookouts for impaired drivers. They've called in 16 possible impaired drivers. One call led to a DUI arrest.

A department spokesperson offered many reasons that the civilian call-ins translated into such a low arrest rate.

“Maybe the driver couldn’t be located after the initial report, maybe the driver wasn’t actually intoxicated or had another reason for erratic driving other than impairment,” APD spokesperson Jennifer Castro wrote in an email. "The way we look at it is: it’s one more dangerous intoxicated driver that was caught thanks to community help, and of course, you never know what that one impaired driver could have done in terms of causing damage or injury."

The families of McPheters and Durr, and even Kenny know what one drunk driver can do. The problem is, many Alaskans drive drunk anyway.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, between one-quarter and one-third of drivers admitted to driving while impaired within the last year. Some estimates show people drive impaired, on average, as many as 80 times before getting caught.

So far this year, police believe, five people have been killed in drunken-driving related accidents in Anchorage. Almost half of first-time DUI offenders will get caught for impaired driving again -- that’s the sobering truth.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com