FAIRBANKS — Brandon Mattzela was on a four-wheeler when he got his fourth drunken-driving charge. The others occurred when he was driving somewhere between Salcha, where he lived, and Fairbanks, where he worked, over the course of seven years. He says he simply didn’t think ahead about transportation.
“I was just very, very impulsive,” he said. “I don’t drink that much. But when I do drink I want to go home.”
He has spent about $25,000 and seven months in jail because of DUIs. He lost his license for five years, so to get to work he bikes five miles from his home in North Pole to the bus stop, and then bikes some more. He needs special permission from his probation officer to stay out past 11 p.m. The escalating penalties from the first few DUIs didn’t get through to him.
“The consequences didn’t matter,” he said. “I was making a lot of money and a $3,000 fine was no big thing.”
The more tragic potential consequences, like taking someone’s life, didn’t occur to him.
“If I would have hurt somebody, I would have never forgiven myself. It just turned into one of those things where once I was drinking I was not thinking,” he said.
Mattzela, 31, works at a fast food restaurant in Fairbanks in the winter when he’s not cutting concrete for a living. He has blond hair and a sarcastic but bright attitude, even about his bad decisions.
“The only thing you can do is learn from it,” he said.
An average of 2.7 people are arrested on a DUI charge each day in Interior Alaska. That number has remained steady for the past 10 years.
In Alaska, the acronym DUI stands for driving under the influence. This includes alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs.
Education and awareness have increased; enforcement and penalties have gone up; but DUIs aren’t going down.
“We have an alcohol problem here,” said Sgt. Rick Roberts, who runs the Alaska State Troopers traffic team in Fairbanks. “Until we get people to start making good decisions, there’s nothing we can do to change that.”
Law enforcement agencies have tried many approaches — special DUI units, education, resident DUI reporting, targeting routes between certain bars and flashing DUI rates on signs downtown.
The city of Fairbanks wants to try something different. It will launch an advertising campaign this fall. The City Council recently doubled vehicle impound fees to $1,000, half of which will go toward advertising on TV, radio and Internet as well as in restaurants and cabs.
“The simple message is, if you’re going out tonight, call a cab first,” said Councilwoman Emily Bratcher, who initiated the effort. “A $20 cab drive can save you so much money.”
It will target those drivers who flirt with the legal limit, even if they haven’t been caught before.
“A vast majority of people have determined that because of the risks they run, both through public notoriety and the fines that are involved, that it’s probably not worth it,” said Lt. Matt Soden, who runs the city’s DUI and traffic division. “There’s still some folks who will weigh the risk-benefit of, ‘How many times can I do it before I get caught?’”
Who gets caught
On weeknights, two city police, one North Pole officer and two state troopers are usually hunting for drunken drivers. On Friday and Saturday nights, there’s about 10, combined. That’s when they catch most DUI drivers.
The Fairbanks District Court sees between 800 and 1,000 DUI cases per year, according to District Court Judge Raymond Funk, who oversees a special DUI court. He estimates about 60 percent of those are first-timers and 30 percent are second-timers. Third-time offenses, considered a felony, make up approximately 75 to 100 cases per year, he said.
A first-time DUI costs an estimated $10,000 on average, according to the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles, including $300 for jail time, $1,500 in court fines, up to $1,000 in impound fees, $1,500 for an ignition interlock device, as well as attorney fees, license reinstatement fees, education compliance fees and a host of other charges.
That doesn’t include a high-risk insurance policy — up to $2,000 per year — that DUI offenders are required to carry for three to five years.
Sentencing depends on your record and other variables, but you can count on at least three days in jail, loss of your license for 90 days, mandatory victims’ and education programs, 60 days with an ignition interlock device and 10 points on your driving record.
Police say the penalties work to a certain degree.
“I think impound fees are a deterrent. I think a stronger deterrent is the certainty that somebody will be caught and the swiftness of punishment against them,” Soden said.
Mattzela faced two years in jail for his fourth DUI, but opted into an 18-month rehabilitation program in lieu of jail. That’s when the consequences finally sunk in.
“What I’ve learned, especially with this last one, is that consequences do matter. I’ve lost everything this time. I had to sell a truck I’ve had for 12 years that I love; I had to sell my house, my property,” he said.
Alaskans say they are driving drunk less frequently, according to a recent study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The survey shows the state’s DUI rates fell from about 15 percent of the total population to 11 percent from 2002 to 2009, more than any other state.
It takes city police longer — an average of 11 hours per arrest, up from eight hours — to find DUIs than several years ago.
“To me that indicates there has been a great reduction,” said Fairbanks Police Chief Laren Zager. “The feeling is that it’s not our inattentiveness, it’s not lazy officers or lack of training. It seems to be that it’s just getting harder to find them.”
So if fewer people are driving drunk, why do arrests remain high?
One theory is that authorities are catching a greater percentage of drunken drivers.
Greater staffing would help even more, Zager said.
But the problem wouldn’t stop there, according to the troopers.
“Here’s the problem. If we add more troopers, we could probably catch more. But how many district attorneys do we need to prosecute those cases?” said Roberts, the trooper who runs that agency’s traffic team in Fairbanks. “If we overwhelm the already swamped DA’s office, how will that help?”
Both troopers and police see plenty of repeat offenders.
“We regularly arrest people for their second, third DUI, sometimes the fourth or fifth. They don’t have a driver’s license for the rest of their life because it’s been revoked,” Roberts said.
Police say that penalties help abate, but cannot eradicate, the crime.
For one thing, they encounter a perpetual stream of new drinkers and new drivers.
“For every generation you educate, you get the younger group that still feels they’re invincible, new to alcohol and bars,” Soden said.
“We also still get the folks, the repeat offenders, that just don’t feel it’s a crime.”
Matzella said drinking and driving was not socially taboo where he grew up in Salcha.
“It’s a completely different world out there. There were no cops around. As long as you didn’t wreck anybody, you were OK. It was kind of a distorted way of looking at things,” he said.
No matter how tough the enforcement or how stiff the penalties, experts say DUIs will not really drop without a cultural shift.
“The community as a whole, I think, is becoming less tolerant of it. A stronger, quiet majority is saying, ‘This is no longer acceptable,’” Soden said.
Coming Tuesday: A look at Wellness Court. News-Miner staff writer Molly Rettig produced this story before leaving the newspaper earlier this month. Contact the newsroom at 459-7572.