One drink too many

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With its crystal white beaches, emerald green Gulf water, long sun-drenched days and warm star-filled nights, coastal Northwest Florida is a pleasant place to live and an inviting locale to visit.

 

Three distinct tourist seasons lure visitors by the millions to the Emerald Coast, and for much of the year they clutter the beaches, streets, bars, restaurants and attractions from Navarre to South Walton.

High school and college spring breakers arrive early in the year, while visitors from all over the world drop in during what regional marketers know as “the 100 days of summer.” Snowbirds take hold of the beach communities in the winter

Although they complain about the traffic, the locals aren’t shy about joining the party, either. They flock with the vacationers to hangouts like Crab Island off Destin whenever weekend or holiday weather permits.

And what a party it is.

Alcohol stands by a wide margin as the drug of choice of Okaloosa County’s masses. Its popularity even helped the Crestview/Fort Walton Beach/Destin area secure the dubious 2017 title of “drunkest city in Florida” as calculated by 24/7 Wall Street, a financial news site.

As everywhere else, too often in Northwest Florida people are getting behind the wheel of a car or boat after drinking too much, putting themselves in jeopardy of getting busted for drunken driving or, worse, getting hurt or killing someone in a DUI-related accident.

“A lot of people have the mentality, ‘I’m not going to get caught,’ and they get out there in their vehicles,” said Amy Jamieson, a Fort Walton Beach city councilwoman and Mothers Against Drunk Driving activist whose son was killed by a drunken driver.

The 24/7 Wall Street study found the Crestview/Fort Walton Beach/Destin metro area last year had the state’s highest alcohol-related traffic fatality rate and, at 39.4 percent, by a wide margin. The rate was 28.2 percent statewide and 30 percent nationwide.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the rating when it came out, calling the measurement metric vague and the results skewed by the number of tourists.

“Naturally, we have a lot of tourists, and I feel like when they come here they come here to get some sun and to party,” local liquor businessman Cash Moore said when the study’s findings were released.

In the last five years, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has arrested 3,027 people for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Of those, 879 arrests occurred in or around Destin, the county’s most popular tourist destination. Another 477 DUI arrests have been recorded between 2014 and June 2018 in the Fort Walton Beach area.

In Walton County, 507 DUI arrests were made between January 2014 and June 2018, and another 514 were recorded in south Santa Rosa County during the same time period.

Injuries resulted or property was damaged in 425 of the Okaloosa County drunken driving incidents in the last five years, and in 12 of those cases at least one person was seriously hurt. Ten people have been charged with DUI-manslaughter since January 2014.

Patrolling one of the nation’s more popular drive-to vacation destinations, area law enforcement officials do see their fair share of out-of-state drunken drivers. However, the vast majority of those caught are Florida residents.

“I think I arrest more locals than tourists on DUIs,” said Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Wesley Haggan, whose patrol beat encompasses Destin and unincorporated areas of Fort Walton Beach.

“The local people blame it on the tourists, when in reality it’s the local people getting the majority of the DUI’s,” Jamieson added.

Statistics show that 266 drivers with out-of-state tags have been charged with driving under the influence in Okaloosa since 2014.

Deputies arrest significantly more Alabama drivers for DUI than drivers from any other state. Statistics show vehicles bearing Alabama tags were caught for DUI 48 times between 2014 and 2018, about twice as many as the next two closest states (Louisiana with 27 and Tennessee with 22) combined.

Texas drivers accounted for 19 DUIs during the past six years, while Georgia drivers were caught driving drunk 15 times and Mississippi drivers 13 times.

The spring influx of younger tourists to the area does seem to have a bearing on DUI statistics. A month-by-month breakdown of arrests in Destin over a five-year period show that March, April and May are the three months that the most DUI arrests are made.

There were 106 DUI arrests made in March between 2012 and 2018, and 98 for the same period in both April and May. That’s an average of 14 per month in April and May, and nearly 15 per month in March.

Numbers drop to about 11 arrests per year in June but spike again in July, August and September, during which the Sheriff’s Office recorded an average of close to or at 13 arrests.

Demographics

While many places in Florida boast of beautiful beaches and entrancing surf, no place on the state’s peninsula is quite so reliant on a single coastal thoroughfare as is the Panhandle.

U.S. Highway 98 is the single major highway running across southern Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. It serves as a critical transportation hub moving traffic east and west on the south side of sprawling Eglin Air Force Base and catches all of the tourist traffic as it arrives on the Gulf Coast.

Designated as a major arterial road, U.S. 98 is designed to be wide, fast and flat to allow vehicles to move along it for long distances with minimal delay. But as it passes through some areas, notably downtown Fort Walton Beach, the speed limit drops to 25 mph.

In 2017, law officers for the Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa county Sheriff’s Offices identified 12 intersections along U.S. 98 as being among the region’s most dangerous.

Bars and restaurants line U.S. 98, and most beachgoers park at places off the highway, such as The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, before spending a day on the water.

It stands to reason, then, that those who would choose to drive after emptying a cooler of beer at the beach or slurping down one too many rum and cokes at a local club will end up on U.S. 98 to get back to wherever their day started.

“You periodically see more DUIs in Destin because of the bars over there. There’s less bars in Fort Walton Beach,” Haggan said. “I’ve lived here about 10 years now, and I’ve worked in all the bars. … Back when I was bouncing and bartending, you had Overboard, Nighttown, Electric Cowboy, AJs — I mean we had almost 10 bars. Now there’s only three or four where people visit to go drink.”

U.S. 98 is unpredictable at the best of times. Often during the spring and summer months there are long hours when traffic is near a standstill. Other times, harried local business people moving from home to work or job site to job site find themselves sharing the road with visitors meandering about, sightseeing, looking for a grocery store or just plain lost.

There are also numerous points where pedestrians step out onto U.S. 98. Many hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions lie on the north side of the road, while the beach lies to the south.

Northwest Florida’s demographics and the laid back appeal of the so-called Redneck Riviera also has proven costly over the years to pedestrians. Records show many of them were intoxicated when they ventured too close to moving traffic or were struck trying to cross busy roads.

An unofficial study conducted last year by the Northwest Florida Daily News showed that more pedestrians per 100,000 people have been killed in recent years in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties than in the much larger Cape Coral-Fort Myers metropolitan area, which had been classified in one study as the “most dangerous” in the nation for pedestrians.

Numbers showed that in 2016 in Northwest Florida, a pedestrian was hit by a car every three days and killed by a motor vehicle every 21.5 days.

Officials will acknowledge the road that bears the nickname “Bloody 98” can be perilous, but none will go so far as to say a person would be wise to avoid it if they choose to drink and drive. No road is better than another for drunken driving, said Matt Nasworthy, a Florida spokesman for AAA.

“If you’re impaired and you get behind the wheel you’ve made the decision and it’s your fault, not the road’s fault,” Nasworthy said.

A tale of two bridges

However, there is a long-held theory that bar patrons cling to. It doesn’t pertain necessarily to U.S. 98, but to any local road that, like 98, crosses water with any frequency.

“It’s a commonly known phenomenon: You never do two bridges,” Fort Walton Beach resident Bill Martin said. “If you do go over two bridges and you drink, you better stay there.”

The two-bridge concept pre-dates MADD and many of the stricter drunken driving laws that came about in the 1980’s, said Weldon Burton, who worked as a bartender and, with his wife Anita, owned a saloon himself for a short time.

Burton, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said he thinks the two-bridge theory has a tie-in to the area’s huge military presence.

“That’s military thinking. They told us that,” Burton said. “Bridges are choke points. If you’re going to get stopped, you’re going to get caught at choke points.”

 

On the water

Okaloosa County ranks in the top two or three counties statewide for the number of boating under the influence citations issued each year, said Capt. Tom Shipp with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Boating and Waterways Section.

“We have a higher incidence of BUI arrests there than the majority of other counties. It is a high-activity area. There’s a lot of boat volume for the geographic size,” Shipp said. “When you look at it, you’ve got more boats, more people, more pressure, more accidents and more citations. For the Northwest Region, it stands out because there’s so much activity.”

A recent week of enforcement action ahead of the Fourth of July weekend netted 57 BUI arrests across the state, Shipp said. Seven of those arrests were made in Northwest Florida, where the great majority of the DUI busts were recorded in Okaloosa County.

Jarrod Molnar, an FWC officer who has worked in Okaloosa County for several years, said 95 percent of the county’s BUI arrests are made in the spring and summer when the weather is good and people are visiting.

“A very high percentage of the BUI arrests in the county come from the vicinity of Crab Island and the Destin Harbor,” he said. “A lot of the boaters cited for BUI are driving rentals and many are visitors from out of state.”

Most of the boating under the influence arrests occur on weekends, Molnar said, but “it’s not uncommon to get them on weekdays and at all hours of the day.”

Crab Island is not actually an island at all but a shallow spot in Choctawhatchee Bay just outside Destin Harbor. It is a popular gathering spot where it is not uncommon to have hundreds of boaters convene at one time.

An oft-heard complaint from those suspected of drunken driving is “we’re just trying to have some fun.”

Shipp said people are aware that drinking and boating is a crime, and more boaters have turned to designated drivers if they expect a long day. The designated driver idea has not caught on, however, as well on the water as it has on land.

Shipp said part of the educational aspect of his duties is to enlighten boaters on the impacts that a long day in the sun, combined with alcohol can have on safely operating a motor vehicle on the water.

Molnar said he has spoken about the concerns of BUI to many of the vendors who rent pontoon boats or other vessels, and many of them say they are now warning their customers about the dangers of drinking and boating. Some say they have agreed to go get a party that overindulges on the water.

Numbers dropping

If there is good news for the “drunkest city in Florida,” it may be that statistics collected for the last five years appear to indicate the number of DUI arrests in the region appear to be dropping.

Statistics provided by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office appear to indicate that the number of DUI arrests made has dropped for each year since 2013, and that the trend is likely to continue in 2018.

“I don’t feel like I’m running across DUIs as often as I had in the past,” Sheriff’s Deputy Haggan said.

Michele Nicholson, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office speculated that the proliferation of cellphones may have woken would-be drunken drivers to the fact that anybody along their route home could quickly report weaving or reckless driving.

Millennials, in particular, seem to be availing themselves of technology to get home safely, Haggan said.

“The taxi cab drivers would actually charge $20 to $30 just to get down to the next bar. You can order an Uber for $8,” he said. “Especially with more millennials coming out to drink nowadays, they’re more cellphone savvy.”

 

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