Gadgets help officers catch drunken drivers

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Just in time for the night notorious for drunken driving, more police officers in the St. Louis area will be equipped with new technology aimed at catching motorists who have overindulged.

Several departments in Missouri and Illinois have purchased portable breath testers during the past year, gear that should get a workout on New Year's Eve. St. Louis County police now have the breath testers for each precinct station.

Results from the test are not admissible in court. Still, officers can use the test as probable cause to arrest a driver, then perform a test on a more sophisticated machine at the jail.

"Some professional drunks can fool you," said Maj. Timothy Fitch, commander of the St. Louis County police patrol division. "Even if they can pass the field sobriety tests, they can't pass this."

The new portable testers appear to be helping. St. Louis County police officers gave DWI violations to 713 drivers through November last year. They arrested 922 in the same time period this year, an increase of 29 percent.

Each of the specialized DWI officers for the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department carry a portable breath tester. Meanwhile, their patrol cars now include cameras to document the testing.

"If you're going to be out partying, have a designated driver or another plan," said St. Charles police Lt. Craig McGuire. "Spend 20 bucks on a taxicab. It could be the best $20 you spend in your life."

Some old-fashioned means will also be employed to keep drunks off the streets. Illinois State Police will hold four roadside safety checks in Madison and St. Clair counties before the end of the year, Trooper Ralph Timmins said.

The agency is also encouraging people to designate a sober driver, to carry their drivers licenses and insurance papers and to wear their seat belts as required by state law.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol will also beef up its patrol staff through New Year's Eve.

Last year, Missouri lost 525 people in alcohol-related crashes. That number dropped to as low as 441 in 1999 and reached as high as 568 in 1996.

In Illinois, 648 people died in alcohol-related crashes last year, an increase that has been steady since 2000, when 614 people died.

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