Sunday sales' impact on highway safety a concern

Several metro Atlanta communities are already preparing to hold a vote in November

A traffic safety expert is warning Georgia cities to make sure they’re prepared for an uptick in drunken driving before they decide to let residents vote on the chance to buy alcohol in stores on Sundays.

To Bob Dallas, former head of the Governor’s Office on Highway Safety, that means more training for police to spot impaired drivers and local campaigns to make it clear offenders will be found.

“If people are drinking at home and run out of beer Sundays, they’ll be able to drive to the store to buy more,” he said. “That’s a threat to keeping your community safe.”

Regional police agencies, though, downplay those worries. Many argue that their traffic patrols won’t change much if Sunday sales are allowed.

“We already hunt drunks 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Smyrna police Chief Stanley Hook said. “We will continue to pursue them.”

Dallas’ concerns echo that of some lawmakers who voted against allowing the retail sales of alcohol on Sundays.

But Dallas, who worked for Sonny Perdue when he was governor, said he is not opposed to Sunday sales the way Perdue was.

He supports his hometown of Dunwoody, for instance, to put the issue up for a vote as expected this fall. That’s because the city has a history of frowning on drinking and driving, he said.

Police Chief Billy Grogan said that culture is why two officers recently earned honors from MADD Georgia for making 107 DUI arrests between them last year. Other police agencies agreed that being known for cracking down on the problem is what matters when trying to keep roads safe.

Lawrenceville staked out its position early, launching a DUI task force in 1989. Capt. Jeff Smith likes to think that the 1,000 arrests the unit was making every year in the 1990s helped make a difference.

The city of 30,000 makes just half the number of drunken driving arrests these days.

“We’re still locking them up wholesale, but I’ve also overheard people saying they know better than to try it in Lawrenceville,” Smith said. “I like to think that reputation helps, but you never really know.”

It’s also unclear what impact, if any, Sunday sales have on traffic safety. A 2010 Drexel University study looked at alcohol-related fatalities in 13 states that eased or repealed Sunday liquor laws and found no evidence of an increase in road deaths.

In his opposition, though, Perdue cited a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study that found a 42 percent jump in traffic deaths after New Mexico changed its laws.

University of Georgia economics lecturer Jason Rudbeck later co-wrote a study that disputed those figures, arguing that factors such as an increase in the speed limit were not considered. Rudbeck’s study also found no effect in traffic deaths from Sunday sales.

“I can’t address local culture, but studies do show that allowing for the availability of packaged alcohol on Sundays doesn’t do anything positively or negatively,” Rudbeck said.

Culture, then, may be the deciding factor. Several metro Atlanta communities, including Snellville and Woodstock, are already preparing to hold a vote in November. Many also participate in ongoing state highway safety programs.

Harris Blackwood, who replaced Dallas as director of the highway safety office, has continued efforts such as Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic, or HEAT, and random checkpoints to tackle the issue.

Those sorts of zero-tolerance efforts are what MADD Georgia is emphasizing, even as the group has taken no stand on Sunday sales.

“If you buy it on a Tuesday or a Sunday, it doesn’t matter to us,” said the group’s director, Emily Clines. “Our mission is to let you know there is no excuse to get behind the wheel after you drink, whatever day it is.”