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Hingham looks to continue initiatives against drunk driving despite end of US grant

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  February 25, 2013 04:47 PM

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A federal grant helping Hingham police combat drunk driving will run out come March, and while the manpower focused on reducing drunk driving may decline, police say the issue will still be a priority.

The town has slowly been depleting an $11,000 federal community policing grant since it was awarded in 2009, mainly using the funding for “saturation patrols.”

Carried out during holidays such as the Thanksgiving Day weekend and Super Bowl Sunday, the additional patrols are placed strategically around town with the intent of catching drunk drivers.

But the additional patrols cost money town departments have never budgeted for, and come the next fiscal year, Hingham will have to focus on funding drunk driving initiatives in new ways.

“The chief has made it clear we will continue with sobriety check points with funding from within,” said Hingham police Sergeant Steven Dearth. “As far as saturation patrols, we can articulate [to town officials] that those have had an impact … we can articulate that there is a need for that. There will be support. We may have to scale back on the patrols … just because the money isn’t there. It won’t cut back on the amount of effort we put in, but on the manpower.”

The reduction could have an impact on the number of drunk driving arrests, which have seen a marked increase since the grant’s implementation.

From 1998 to 2008, Hingham had 60 OUI arrests per year on average, with no one year having more than 66 arrests.

By 2009, that number had jumped to 84 arrests. In 2010, Hingham Police made 77 arrests, in 2011 police made 92 arrests, and in 2012 they made 75.

Though the jump in arrests may just point to more vigilance on the part of officers, the statics also point to a safer town.

According to Dearth, the last time Hingham police charged someone with causing a fatality by drunk driving was in 1997. Prior to that, fatalities were happening with more frequency, with intoxicated driving typically the cause, he said.

In the last two years alone, there has also been a decrease in OUI crashes with injuries, dropping from five in 2011 to three in 2012. In 2009, there were 21 OUI crashes; that number dropped to 20 in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The town will apply for the federal grant again, but the chances of winning are slim, Dearth said.

“They are more competitive and there are less out there to apply for,” he said.

Dearth is still optimistic, however, that the town has taken steps to further the progress already made in combating drunk driving.

"It's all about public safety," he said. "That’s why we’re trying to prevent this … in the interest of someone getting hurt or killed. It’s 100 percent preventable.”

In addition to sobriety checkpoints, which have become an annual occurrence with the State Police since they were first started in 2008, the department has also trained half its officers in better detecting intoxicated drivers. State grants are also helping to fund OUI saturation patrols.

Dearth said the main focus isn’t necessarily catching drunk drivers in the act; it is stopping them from getting behind the wheel in the first place.

Awareness campaigns done with marketing materials have helped in that effort, along with resident training in the town’s citizens’ police academy.

The increased awareness might be the reason why more citizens are calling 9-1-1 to report erratic driving than ever before. Typically the town receives around 300 such calls a year. In 2012, 469 people called in to report erratic driving.

“We try to get that public information out there,” Dearth said. “We do press releases and do public awareness before we do these events. If we can prevent someone from doing it or stimulate conversation, that’s beneficial to everyone.”

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