As officers from dozens of departments across central Wisconsin take to the roads in special saturation patrols, they want drivers to know they're looking for any behavior that can cause a crash and ruin the holidays for someone.
The Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over holiday campaign will put extra patrols on roads from Marathon, Portage and Wood counties' sheriff's offices and police departments, beginning Dec. 13 and going through New Year's Day,
Although the special patrol officers will be looking for drunken drivers, those aren't the only concern, Marathon County Lt. Ted Knoeck said. Marathon County has had 14 people die in 12 crashes this year, and none of the crashes were believed to be caused by drinking, according to information from the Wisconsin County Traffic Safety Commission's Community Maps. Distracted driver played a role in many of the crashes.
"Alcohol is still a factor in some fatal crashes, but, not in all of them," Knoeck said.
Although state laws ban texting and driving, it's not an easy thing for officers to prove. People seen on cellphones can be using a GPS app, dialing a number, or doing a variety of things that have nothing to do with texting, Knoeck said.
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If someone is involved in a crash, officers will check phones and see whether the driver was using it and is guilty of detracted driving, Knoeck said.
It isn't just phones, Portage County Sheriff Mike Lukas said. Newer vehicles have large screens in them and doing things like changing radio stations or adjusting the heat require touching the screen. That takes people's attention off the roads, Lukas said.
While Marathon County's 12 fatal crashes were up from the previous year's nine, Portage County's fatal crashes are down. There have been three fatal crashes in Portage County in 2018, less than half of 2018's seven fatal crashes.
Drunken driving arrests have been going down in Portage County, Lukas said. There were 146 in 2017, 144 in 2018 and the county is on track to have fewer in 2019, Lukas said.
Educational programs such as the statewide Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over that have highly visible patrols have encouraged residents to choose a designated driver or use programs that give drivers who have had too much to drink a safe ride home, Lukas said.
Portage County will have additional patrols out as part of the drunken driving program, but the deputies also will be looking for distracted drivers, Lukas said.
Although people often think officers want to make arrests during the special holiday patrols, but that isn't true, Wood County Sheriff's Department Capt. Quentin Ellis said. Ellis said he would be happy if deputies didn't catch any drunken drivers, because that would mean people are getting the message.
Wood County has had eight fatal traffic crashes in 2019, with 10 deaths, twice the number as in all of 2018, according to the Community Maps. In two of the crashes, alcohol was suspected of being a factor, including a crash that killed a popular Stevens Point teacher while she rode her bicycle.
Although alcohol isn't to blame for a majority of fatal crashes, there are many alcohol-related crashes in central Wisconsin each year. Wood County had 66 crashes in 2018 where alcohol was suspected to be a factor, according to Community Maps. As of Dec. 5, there have been 57 alcohol-related crashes in the county this year.
The numbers reflect those crashes where alcohol was suspected, and the number of crashes where alcohol was proven to be a factor could be much lower, but the idea of averaging more than one alcohol-related crash a week is disturbing, Wood County Sheriff Shawn Becker said.
Although Becker said he hopes no one will choose to get behind the wheel drunk during the holiday season, deputies and police will be watching. Officers would rather make an arrest than have someone's holiday ruined by a drunken driving crash, he said.