Driving down DUIs: Senior leaders fight rise in alcohol violations
Stars and Stripes August 5, 2009
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For the 52nd Fighter Wing commander at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, even one drunken driving violation by one of his airmen is one too many.
It’s a line repeated often by most commanders, to the point it can sound cliche.
But for Col. Lee Wight, the campaign against drunken driving is deeply personal.
In 1982, while working as a civilian police officer in Norman, Okla., a 16-year-old girl died in his arms after her car was T-boned at an intersection by a drunk driver.
"It sticks in your mind," Wight said. Ever since, "I’ve been kind of waging a war against DUIs."
A spike in drunken driving and other alcohol-related offenses this spring did not go unnoticed. After one DUI and one alcohol-related incident in January, the numbers for both began to creep up: 4 in February, 6 in March and 7 in April. And then in May there were several off-base incidents and serious accidents, some involving alcohol.
Wight and senior leaders across base cracked down, using a mixture of policy, punishment and programs to combat drunken driving and promote responsible choices.
Wight looked into raising the drinking age on base — in Germany it’s legal to consume beer and wine at 16, hard liquor at 18 — but was told he couldn’t legally do that.
But he could regulate base alcohol sales. In May, Wight banned alcohol sales from midnight to 8 a.m. at the Spangdahlem and Bitburg shoppettes: Most of the recent DUIs and alcohol-related offenses had occurred during the early morning hours and were directly tied to late-night alcohol purchases.
Wight also implemented a mandatory toxicology test for airmen involved in any mishap where damage exceeded $500.
"We’ve since backed off to $1,000," he said.
Random sweeps of dormitories for contraband kicked into high gear. Dorm councils were re-established to allow residents some influence over dorm policies, and consequently, a sense of ownership.
"Some of the residents want to make dorms dry," Wight said, though base officials said last week no such proposals have been made yet.
An alcohol task force, open to anyone on base, was recently formed with the focus on helping airmen make responsible choices.
"It’s giving younger airmen on base ... the opportunity to come up with ideas on their own," said 2nd Lt. Kathleen Polesnak, a 52nd Fighter Wing spokeswoman.
Through his blog, Wight has received ideas from airmen about how to reduce alcohol-related incidents. One suggestion — keeping the fitness center open 24 hours a day — was implemented on a trial basis, for weekdays only.
Base officials are also using the examples of two recent airmen to show that commanders are willing to step up the consequences for drunken driving. One airman was nabbed by police after he stopped his sport utility vehicle in the middle of a residential area and passed out with the engine running and door open. The other was stopped at the main gate.
Both airmen, who were court-martialed, received 15-day sentences as well as other punishments.
Two other airmen, meanwhile, are still recovering from car crashes they were part of in May, one of which involved alcohol.
It may be too early to tell the long-term effect of the base’s efforts to reduce drunken driving and other alcohol-influenced infractions. But the trend appears to be on the upswing again. In May and June, there was one DUI for each month; there were five in July.
"We’re focused on responsible choices," Wight said. "The DUI piece is just a sub-piece of that. If you’re staying up all night drinking, how are you going to be ready to do the mission the next day?"