Sydney Davis easily could have become the second Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy killed in the line of duty this year. On April 5, she suffered a broken neck and ended up in a critical care unit after her patrol car was clipped by a suspected drunk driver.
We’re thankful the 25-year-old deputy won’t join Daniel McCartney on the Sheriff Department's 2018 roll call of honor, three months after McCartney was shot to death.
But Davis faces a lengthy recovery and joins a long list of people killed or severely injured by impaired drivers on Washington roads. Pierce County’s annual tally of serious DUI crashes hit a seven-year high in 2016, the last full year for which traffic records are available.
Clearly political and law enforcement leaders must do more to strengthen laws, saturate the public with sobering information, put more officers on the road, and give them resources to work time-consuming DUI cases.
Along with other recent local drunk-driving incidents, Davis’ devastating wreck underscores a chronic problem for which there are no simple fixes: Too many drivers swill a cocktail of ignorance and arrogance; they think they can keep motor skills sharp after several alcoholic drinks.
Furthermore, their options for stupidity have grown due to state marijuana legalization and our prescription-drug culture. (Driving under the influence of electronic devices is dumb, too, but can’t be measured by blood sample or Breathalyzer.)
Washington had 256 fatal crashes involving impaired drivers in 2016, according to Washington Traffic Safety Commission data — the most in at least a decade. Meanwhile, Pierce County had a combined 72 fatal and serious injury crashes, its highest level since 2010.
Consider these incidents just in the last two weeks:
▪ A Federal Way man with four previous DUI charges or convictions drove the wrong way on state Route 516 Monday night and caused a wreck involving three other cars and injuring six people, including a 5-year-old child. The man and his brother, also a four-time offender, died.
▪ A Tacoma man was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving April 8 after a three-car accident that hospitalized two people and closed the westbound state Route 16 off ramp at Union Avenue for more than three hours.
▪ The driver who ran into Deputy Davis’ vehicle and sent it rolling down an embankment on Pacific Avenue in Parkland told an investigator he'd earlier shared a pitcher of beer with a friend and smoked marijuana.
State lawmakers took overdue action last year by making a fourth DUI conviction a felony offense; our felony standard had been one of the weakest in the country, allowing repeat offenders (like the Federal Way brothers above) to endanger the public.
That legal reform earned praise, but there’s no time to rest. Several other potential changes deserve attention from state and local leaders.
At the top of our list: Train more traffic cops to draw blood from DUI suspects and streamline rules for them to do it.
Lakewood Police launched a program last year that made them pioneers in the field. Officers who’ve received their state phlebotomy certification can bring suspects to the station for blood draws, bypass hospital bureaucracy and return to patrol duty faster.
It also helps them identify the cause of impairment at a time when the realm of potential sources is vast. “Officers might be very good at recognizing alcohol or marijuana, but not so much prescription drugs,” Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro told us last week. He said combinations of substances can be particularly tricky.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Department recently adopted a similar program. Other local police agencies would do well to follow. And state lawmakers should look at revising requirements for forensic phlebotomists, so that more cops can attain the minimum qualifications.
A proposal before the Legislature this year would have done that, but unfortunately didn’t get far. House Bill 2715 also contained several other intriguing ideas, such as toughening penalties for DUI offenders with more than one child in the car, and limiting good-behavior credits that allow shorter prison terms.
One idea certain to stir controversy is lowering Washington’s legal blood alcohol level from .08 to .05 percent, as the National Transportation Safety Board advises and a group of mostly Democratic legislators proposes. It might not be a great fit, or at least not the right time — Utah is the only state to drop its limit so low, the result of a law passed last year — but what’s the harm of holding a public hearing on the bill?
Opening a serious dialogue about new ways to deter impaired drivers is the least we can do to support law enforcement professionals. They’re exposed to ignorance and arrogance on the road every day, and some, like Sydney Davis, pay a cruel price.