TAMPA — When it comes to deadly alcohol-related crashes, Tampa is third in the state.
And in 2011, Hillsborough County reported 67 alcohol-related traffic fatalities — the most in Florida.
So just before the holidays, the Florida Department of Transportation sent money toward the problem. Tampa police and Hillsborough and Pasco county sheriff’s offices each received grants that are paying for increased driving-under-the-influence patrols.
On New Year’s Eve, DUI patrol officers saturated the streets. Tampa Officer Joe Sustek was one of them. He rolled through the streets of South Tampa near the Howard Avenue bars, and on the side streets of Ybor City. It was early evening, and though the drink special signs were up, the hard partying hadn’t started.
Sustek has worked the night shift for nearly his entire 16-year career in law enforcement and knows a shift can change in an instant, particularly on a party night like New Year’s Eve.
“You never know from one night to the next,” said Sustek, 39.
Last fall, Tampa received about $127,000 from the FDOT, and Hillsborough got $145,000, which is paying for officers’ overtime. Pasco won a similar grant.
The money will allow the agencies to increase their DUI patrol presence on historically busy weekends, such as spring break.
Hillsborough plans to use some of its grant for an education campaign aimed at underage drinking. The Pasco State Attorney’s Office also received a grant to pay for a DUI prosecutor.
According to its grant application, the Tampa Police Department hopes to increase DUI arrests by 5 percent and decrease DUI-related crashes by 10 percent over a nine-month period.
The agency has 15 designated DUI patrol officers who work four-day shifts. They look for drunken drivers and can be called as backup when a regular patrol officer suspects impairment.
Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the agency hopes the patrols will decrease crashes and encourage people to seek other options, like a cab.
“It’s so preventable,” she said. “And there are so many resources, there’s no excuse.”
According to Tampa police, the majority of DUI-related crashes involve someone with a blood-alcohol level near 0.08, the level at which the state presumes impairment.
Very high blood-alcohol levels are found infrequently, Davis said.
“Most are what you’d consider ‘buzzed driving,’ ” she said. “You think that you’re okay because you’ve only had a couple of drinks over a couple hours.”
Tampa Bay has several cab companies, and AAA offers free towing on holidays, a service called “Tow to Go.”
“Or just call a friend,” Davis said. “Just don’t drink and drive.”
Meanwhile, Sustek, the Tampa police officer, was spending his night shift looking out for cars with no headlights or cars that ran stop signs, made wide turns, used no signals.
He was ready for a variety of excuses and explanations, including one he has heard a lot lately: “I only had half a beer.”
Sustek made only one drunken driving arrest last New Year’s Eve — the driver had been in a crash — and said his busiest holiday sometimes turns out to be St. Patrick’s Day.
Still, he didn’t want his loved ones to take chances. He told his oldest son, a college student, to stay off the roads Monday night.
Staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.