DUI awareness council looks back over 30 years, honors member

SETH NOLAN/Sun-Gazette DUI Advisory Council members Carol Sides, left, Lycoming County Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr. and Old Lycoming Township Police Chief Joseph Hope, right, presented an award to fellow council member Chris Smith, who has been working with the council for 30 years.

Lycoming County was only the second in the state to get a grant to create a council to raise awareness about drunken driving. Three decades later, the Lycoming County DUI Advisory Council has launched many of the programs that have helped drive down numbers locally and in the state.

This past week, the council looked back at how far it’s come, honored a long-time member and talked about the future.

“We formed to look at what had to be done to change the social norm that it was acceptable to drive after drinking,” said Chris Smith of the Community Traffic Safety Project, which was to close later this month.

Smith, who was awarded twice for her 30 years of dedication to the council, announced that decision has been reversed and she will be continuing her work.

When the group was created in the late 1980s, drinking and driving wasn’t nearly as stigmatized as it is today, chairwoman Carol Sides said.

“We looked at environmental, engineering and community aspects,” Smith said. “We realized there was no one way to look at DUI. This was really developed through the input of the community.”

Together with the connections the council has made, it has launched the county’s DUI Processing Center, increased the number of officers trained in field sobriety testing and expanded that to testing for other drugs. And those are just a few of the major strides over the past three decades.

The council started with about a dozen members. It has since doubled and represents law enforcement agencies, school districts, colleges and other institutions around the county.

Memorable achievements were discussed, but so were the new variables confronting the council today.

The majority of young kids and adults don’t consider driving while under the influence of marijuana as impairing as driving after drinking. And those same people aren’t aware that THC levels have increased tremendously over the decades, Smith said.

The council will begin looking into it as a next move, Sides said.

Old Lycoming Township Police Chief Joseph Hope gave a report on the roving patrols and checkpoints conducted, and said that departments have seen more people using designated drivers.

And although there have been six fatal crashes in the county between February and June of this year with blood alcohol contents from .05 to .22, overall numbers are down, said Charles E. Kiessling Jr., county coroner.

“Although we are seeing a lot of alcohol with cocaine and alcohol with marijuana, there’s been a fairly good decline over the years through the enforcement and educational efforts,” Kiessling said.

The council will meet next on Nov. 14 to hear updates from a member of the state Liquor Control Board.