Even with reduced hours at area bars and restaurants, DUI cases are on the rise and local numbers show an increase in drug-related charges, according to area experts.
In Lycoming County, DUI cases were lower in 2021 than 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to District Judge Gary Whiteman – but those numbers may be deceptive.
“The numbers, although they look lower on face value… I would suggest they are higher,” Whiteman said during a meeting of the Lycoming County DUI Advisory Board on Tuesday.
In 2021, 477 DUI cases were filed, according to Whiteman, down from 544 in 2019.
There may be a variety of reasons for the decrease, Whiteman said, the primary one being that restaurants and bars have either been closed or had reduced hours since the beginning of the pandemic.
“You’re limiting the number of hours available to the consumer,” Whiteman said.
During the early days of the pandemic, restaurants may have limited their hours to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. Now, the employee staffing shortage requires restaurants to continue in a limited capacity.
‘A six-pack for the road’
By contrast, in the wider region of northcentral Pennsylvania , state police are seeing record numbers of DUI cases, according to Troop F Patrol Section Commander Lt.Travis W. Doebler.
In 2021, Troop F reported 1,300 DUI cases spread out among Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Tioga and Union counties, according to Doebler.
“Yes, the bars have been shut down, but every convenience store now has a beer cage,” Doebler said. “We’ve seen more DUIs from people going to a convenience store and getting a six-pack for the road to supplement what has been shut down due to COVID.”
A decrease in traffic stops could also be a cause for the lower number of DUI cases in Lycoming County, according to drug recognition expert Shawn Noonan, retired from the Pennsylvania State Police. This means a decrease in “proactive stops” such as a taillight out, window tint or failure to use a turn signal, which often result in further DUI-related charges.
Noonan pointed to lower staffing among law enforcement over the past two years as the primary reason for fewer stops.
“Those stops are in the majority of interactions for how we began our interaction with the intoxicated driver,” Whiteman said.
Since 2019, there has been a 10% increase in the number of drug-related DUI arrests, according to Whiteman.
Whiteman suspected this could be in part due to a lack of understanding about the rules for medical marijuana card holders.
“It’s unbelievable the number of people who come into my court and say, “But I have a (medical marijuana) card,” Whiteman said. Simply having the card does not give a person the right to drive while under the influence of cannabis, he added.
Doebler also suspected that the actual number of DUIs that are drug-related could be higher, since if an individual is found to be under the influence of alcohol, further tests aren’t always conducted for additional substances.
This is often due to the cost of performing additional tests at the lab, Doebler said.