With the first Penn State home football game and the long Labor Day weekend just days away, PennDOT and law enforcement officials from five counties gathered Wednesday to remind drivers to "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over."
"Driving under the influence is a life-altering crime," said Blair County Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard, who joined Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan and Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw, as well as state and local police in announcing the latest crackdown on impaired drivers.
PennDOT is putting $4.2 million in funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into the hands of state police and DUI task forces as part of a nationwide effort to curb drunken driving, District 9 spokeswoman Pam Kane said.
More than 600 municipal police departments across the state will take part in patrols and checkpoints targeting impaired drivers, whether by drugs or alcohol, Kane said.
Bernard said she's dealt with the tragic aftermath of DUI-related deaths and said more and more area police are now being trained as drug recognition experts, giving police "another layer" in spotting and prosecuting impaired drivers.
While all police are trained to look for signs of drug use, those trained as drug recognition experts help in providing evidence police can use in going after more detailed blood tests and other medical records that police need to prove impairment in cases involving drugs.
With the number of weekend activities planned, whether it be the start of the Cambria County Fair or people visiting places like Prince Gallitzin State Park, police will "be out in full force," Callihan said. Since impaired driving doesn't stop at any town or county's borders, Callihan said it was important that police were coming together to coordinate efforts.
"This is a perfect example of how collaboration in different jurisdictions can work," she said.
Shaw urged people to "celebrate responsibly" during what he called a wonderful time of year with picnics and family gatherings.
"As a prosecutor, there's no case harder than a DUI-related death," Shaw said.
According to PennDOT, there were 16 alcohol-related accidents, with no fatalities, over the Labor Day weekend in 2010. Across the state, there were 169 crashes and five deaths.
Although only 6 months old, Blair County's efforts to expedite DUI cases, and get drivers off the road faster, have been "working very well," Bernard said.
Blair County judges have been making a concerted effort in the last three years to streamline the system for those arrested for DUI.
Judge Daniel J. Milliron began presiding over a DUI Court and, working with President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, initiated an effort to dispose of DUI cases within six months of arrest.
The DUI Court so far has 36 graduates. Six DUI suspects have been kicked out of the program and three quit because it was too difficult, Milliron said.
Those in the court have had multiple arrests for DUI, and while they are required to serve a relatively short jail term, they are also involved in treatment and close monitoring by the Blair County Adult Parole and Probation Office.
About two-thirds of the DUI cases are handled within the six-month period, Milliron said.
A third are still taking longer to dispose of, and the judge said a study is under way to determine why some cases are not making their way through the system in the allotted time.
The whole effort is to save lives, and Milliron said he believes the DUI Court and the quick handling of cases is doing just that.
Blair County judges found that delays in handling cases was creating a dangerous situation.
Motorists arrested for DUI were continuing to drive while their initial arrests were awaiting disposition in court. In many cases, they were being arrested for a second or even a third DUI while waiting for the disposition of the first case.
Now those who have been arrested and who are on bail awaiting disposition are not permitted to consume alcohol. A violation can land them in prison for violating provisions of their bail.
They also are being diverted into treatment programs much sooner than in the past.
Milliron believes his work in DUI Court "is the most important thing I do out here."