Saturday, December 03, 2005

Travis County Sheriff's Office is adding deputies to arrest suspected DWI drivers

The Travis County sheriff's office is creating a traffic unit to increase their DWI arrests.
Sheriff Greg Hamilton said the unit, which will consist of four deputies, will have the sole task of finding and dealing with drunken drivers. It will operate from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., and will focus on the eastern part of the county, where wrecks have increased significantly in recent years as the population has grown.
The DWI unit has three deputies and should add a fourth by Jan. 1, Hamilton said. He added that the unit is intended to work closely with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Hamilton, a former beverage commission employee, said that at conferences around the country, people joke that "if Texas would just reduce its number (of drunken driving fatalities) by 10 percent, the figure nationwide would go down noticeably."
In 2004, Texas accounted for 9 percent of the nation's 15,045 alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Forty-one percent of the state's traffic deaths involved alcohol, according to the highway administration.
Hamilton said he's found the recent increases in Travis County alarming. In 2003, the sheriff's office made 345 arrests for driving while intoxicated; this year, they've arrested more than 550, "and we're just getting into DWI season," said Lt. Al LaBlanc, who oversees the unit.
The DWI unit will use what the sheriff's office has termed "stealth cars," which LaBlanc said are marked but in "more subdued colors" that impaired drivers might not identify as readily.
"We're not trying to be big brother," Hamilton said, "but we've lost enough lives to DWIs and aggressive driving."
The unit is part of a larger effort by the sheriff's office to fulfill one of Hamilton's campaign promises: cutting down on drunken and aggressive driving on the county's roads.
Roger Wade, a sheriff's spokesman, said all patrol deputies will begin looking for reckless driving — aggressively weaving through heavy traffic, for instance — and not just speeding.
In this year's budget, the sheriff's office got 10 new patrol deputies at a startup cost of about $86,000 each. The DWI unit is included in those 10 deputies.
The sheriff's office should have about 20 of its 183 deputies dedicated strictly to patrolling once the positions are filled, Wade said, though he added that with deputies sometimes shifting roles, that number is not set in stone.