East Hawaii News

HPD Expresses Concern in Spike of BAC Levels Among DUI Drivers

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DUI arrests have increased on the Big Island this year, but it’s the level of impairment those drivers are exhibiting that concerns the Hawai’i Police Department.

As of Dec. 26, police had arrested 1,057 drivers for DUI this year, a 6.4% increase from the 993 DUI arrests made by the same time last year. There were a total of 1,001 DUI arrests made throughout all of 2020. There were 1,085 DUI arrests made in 2019, a decrease of 0.91% from 2018. And the 1,001 DUI arrests during 2020 accounted for a 7.7% decrease from 2019.

But the number that surprises Torey Keltner, Traffic Services Section program manager for the Hawai’i Police Department, is the average blood-alcohol content, or BAC, of the impaired drivers officers have arrested recently.
Keltner said the average BAC of drivers arrested for DUI was .136, which is almost double the legal limit of .08. That average, however, has spiked even higher this month.

“During December, that number, what I have been tracking, has jumped up to a .209,” said Keltner during a Dec. 15 interview with Kapa FM. “It’s amazing and very scary that we have people that are out there driving at those high levels. And again, that is the average for this month.”

He stated in an email to Big Island Now Thursday that the first week of December saw an exceptionally high blood-alcohol content average of .218 for those arrested for DUI. Fortunately, the current monthly BAC average has decreased to .166, but that’s still more than twice the legal limit; the national average is .155.


“These numbers are concerning when you understand that .08 is what is considered legally intoxicated,” Keltner said. ” It’s important to know that even one drink impairs a person’s ability to think and react the same way they would if they had not consumed any alcoholic beverage at all.”

He said that not only is going over the .08 BAC limit a crime, it’s extremely dangerous.

“There is absolutely NO EXCUSE to drive after drinking alcohol or consuming anything that impairs your ability to drive a vehicle safely,” Keltner said.

Driving while impaired is a factor in hundreds of traffic crashes each year on the Big Island, some fatal.

In 2019, 233 drivers who were arrested for DUI were involved in traffic accidents. Impairment was a factor in 12 fatal crashes that year, according to the HPD, four of which involved just alcohol, seven only drugs and one involved both. There were 176 drivers arrested for driving under the influence who were involved in crashes in 2020. Impairment was a factor in 12 fatal accidents that year also; three involved alcohol only, seven just drugs and two where both were a factor.


There had already been 26 fatal traffic accidents this year as of Thursday, a 73.3% increase from the 15 fatalities in 2020.

“And that’s absolutely an unacceptable number,” Keltner said during the Kapa FM interview, which at the time there had been 25 fatal accidents on the Big Island.

Of those 26 traffic fatalities, impairment was a factor in 17, including one involving alcohol only, nine drug-only related fatalities and seven in which both were a factor.

“Zero is what we’re really shooting for,” Keltner said during the Kapa FM interview. “We’ve had way, way too many people get hurt that way.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, on average, more than 10,000 people were killed each year from 2015-19 nationally in drunk-driving crashes — one person was killed every 52 minutes in 2019.


“This is why Hawai‘i Police Department is working with NHTSA to remind drivers that drunk driving is not only illegal, it is a matter of life and death,” said the HPD in a press release. “As you head out to New Year’s festivities, remember: ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.'”

Keltner said during his interview with Kapa FM that the pandemic changed the way DUI enforcement happened on the Big Island. Instead of multiple DUI checkpoints that have become a familiar site around the island, to lessen contact, the department shifted to placing officers and patrolling at saturation points.

“Saturation patrols were conducted on several different roadways focusing on the areas identified as high crash and fatality corridors and the tributaries that feed into them,” Keltner said in his email. “These are areas known to have higher volumes of traffic, which increases the possibility of a crash occurring.”

They also are places where police know people driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol commonly travel.

“We’re out there trying to protect people and keep people from killing each other while they’re driving,” Keltner said in the Kapa FM interview.

Saturation patrols continue and DUI roadblocks were implemented again at the end of October this year. The additional enforcement has led to more arrests of drivers operating a vehicle while they are impaired, which is a positive factor in preventing more fatal crashes, Keltner said.

By the last week of October, that added enforcement level had already nabbed an additional 10 DUI arrests compared with the same week in 2020.

Keltner attributes the increase in DUI arrests this year to several reasons.

Fewer people driving during the pandemic had an affect on the number of DUI arrests. But now, with more people traveling, the return of DUI roadblocks and continuation of saturation patrols as well as the overall increase in the level of intoxication of drivers being arrested have all contributed to the increase in DUI arrests this year.

Coupled with its enforcement efforts, the police department also conducts a wide-ranging community awareness campaign.

“We try very hard now to get into the community,” Keltner said in his interview with Kapa FM.

The department has school resource officers getting the message out that driving under the influence is dangerous and HPD officers and personnel have done sign-waving events to raise awareness. Keltner has participated in those events during this holiday season and the department hosted another Thursday.

“We continue to try and find avenues, just like this, to have the conversation, to get the message out there, to try to get other people involved because the police department alone can’t make the biggest difference. We need everybody’s help. It’s a community thing,” he said during the Kapa FM interview. “That’s how we can make each other safe. Everybody working together to get to that point.”

DUI roadblocks and patrols will continue islandwide. Officers will be out in force during the New Year’s weekend to take drunk drivers off Big Island roads.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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