One silver lining of the pandemic is a drop in drunk driving

Cases in Los Angeles fall with bars closed, but that could change as businesses reopen

Illustration of a wine glass sloshing



The shutdown of in-person service at bars and restaurants for a year due to COVID-19 was brutal for business owners. But there was one silver lining: The number of incidents of drunk driving in Los Angeles plummeted.


Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the closure of bars and restaurants on March 15, 2020, and county leaders adopted the same measures. In the year that followed, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department recorded 1,745 cases of drunk driving (referenced below as the total for 2021). That was a 21.5% decrease from the drunk driving cases tallied in the previous 12 months.


DUI cases pursued by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department

Bar chart with DUI cases from 2012-2011

Garrett Dameron, who oversees the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office DUI Training and Prosecution Section, said the number of overall criminal cases filed by law enforcement fell by 15% last year. However, he noted that there has been one outlying trend: People arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, rather than alcohol, have held steady or increased during the pandemic. 


“Even in light of the reduction last year from COVID, we saw an increase in DUI cases causing injury, and DUI cases involving a combination of alcohol and drugs,” Dameron said. 


After California voters in 2016 approved Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use, the number of misdemeanor DUI drug cases sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office nearly quadrupled, from 285 in 2017 to 1,018 in 2018. 


Sgt. Michael Downing of the LASD Traffic Service Detail attributed the general decline in DUIs over the past year to the stay-at-home orders and, even as restrictions have been eased, the inability for bars and restaurants to resume pre-pandemic levels of service.  


DUIs tend to spike in the summer months and holiday weekends, said Downing.


“With bars closed and restaurants closed, there’s fewer places for people to drink,” Downing said. “They’re drinking more at home if they are drinking at all, and they’re not driving from a bar to go home, so we saw a decrease pretty much countywide.”


In a way, the pandemic year has accelerated a trend, as annual DUI cases in Los Angeles County have been decreasing from a high of 3,153 in 2011, according to LASD data. Since then, cases have fallen by 40%, to 1,897 in 2020. 


Help from apps

One reason overall numbers declined, Downing said, is the growing popularity of ride-sharing apps, which made it easier for bar-goers to get home without getting behind the wheel. A Crosstown analysis showed that the increased use of services such as Uber and Lyft beginning in 2012 coincided with a steady drop in DUI arrests. 


“We have seen a decrease due to Uber and Lyft,” Downing said. “When we do DUI checkpoints in, say, West Hollywood, where it’s mostly clubs, you have more Uber and Lyft drivers coming through the checkpoint versus private people.”


A DUI can have serious consequences for a driver. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, people confronted with a DUI charge face an average of $13,500 in fines and penalties, not to mention attorney fees. There is also the possibility of a suspended sentence. 


One big unknown is what happens with the gradual reopening of Los Angeles County and more people back on the road. Downing said that there could be an increase in DUIs as bars, restaurants and other businesses open up.


How We Did It: We examined Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department publicly available data for DUI arrests from March 15, 2011 to March 15, 2021.


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