PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Boredom, fear and free money.
These are the reasons cited by one activist why DUI numbers are skyrocketing on the Treasure Coast.
“We were getting stimulus checks,” said John Nelson, whose life changed 15 years ago when a truck driven by a drunk driver ran a red light, and crashed into his brother Tom's car, killing him.
“Good guy, hard-working, raising kids. Coming home at the end of the day," Nelson says before trailing off. "We hear it all the time"
Nelson started the Treasure Coast’s Families Against Drunk Driving in the wake of that personal tragedy.
He isn’t surprised by the increase in DUI arrests.
“During the pandemic, people didn’t go back north,” Nelson said. “People more stress. Got more time on their hands: They’re going to drink.”
Law enforcement officials told Contact 5 that at the start of the pandemic DUI arrests fell as early bar and restaurant closings and other restrictions kept people off the road. The respite was short-lived.
Since 2020, when the pandemic began, DUI arrests have increased by 36% from 2019 in the Treasure Coast Counties of St. Lucie, Martin, and Indian River. Police are on track to increase the arrest numbers another 18% in 2021. In Palm Beach County, DUI arrests are projected to be up 13% this year compared to 2020.
In the city of Port St. Lucie, the police department is on track to set a yearly record, as DUI arrests are up 41 percent this year. Police say the pandemic years of 2020, and 2021 will see the most DUI arrests in the city’s history, by far.
“I’m a believer that one is too many, and two is way too many,” said St. Lucie Police Officer Keith Appelbaum.
WPTV recently spent a night riding along with the patrolman. He’ll pull over drivers that speed, or struggle to stay in their lanes.
With every stop, Appelbaum always has one question: “Have you had anything to drink tonight?”
Appelbaum asked this question nine times during his shift.
On this night, Appelbaum joined fellow officers who stopped a driver weaving in and out of traffic.
“What’s going on my man?” asked Appelbaum.
“Nothing,” replied the driver.
“Nothing? You had a couple of beers?” the patrolman asked.
“A couple,” said the driver.
Appelbaum suspected he had more.
“Because I can smell it coming out of your car and you’re slurring your words,” Appelbaum told the driver, who was tested for sobriety, and in the eyes of police who found he could not quite walk a straight line, he failed.
“As of right now, you are under arrest for driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage,” Applebaum told the driver, who was handcuffed and taken to police headquarters for a test to determine if he was over the legal limit for alcohol consumption.
The driver was yet another DUI arrest.
Alcohol is not the only factor in the rise of DUI’s.
Police pulled over a truck weaving on California Boulevard at the beginning of the night shift
Officers say they found a bag of white powder and hypodermic needles, and arrested the driver for Driving Under the Influence.
Police say most DUI arrest involve alcohol, but an increasing number are on drugs.
“The City of Port St. Lucie as well as the chief that it was going to be the year that we aggressively focused on reducing aggressive driving. And along with that came DUI," Applebaum said.