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A Q&A with Cheektowaga cop, always on the lookout for drunk drivers

This Fourth of July, there will be parades and picnics – and for many revelers, alcohol.

On the lookout for drivers who have partied beyond the .08 percent blood alcohol content level – the legal limit for drinking and driving, law enforcement across the region will be on patrol.

Among them will be Cheektowaga Police Officer Scott Scharlau who has worked in his department's traffic unit since 2004 and has been involved in more than 300 drunk driving arrests. About a quarter of all the traffic accidents he deals with involve impairment by alcohol or drugs, he said.

"We've all been in social situations where someone slowly becomes more and more impaired. At a party, it’s kind of funny and entertaining. Behind the wheel, it’s deadly," he said. He spoke to The Buffalo News about drunk driving ahead of the holiday.

Q: What are you looking for when you're out on patrol?

A: Unsafe operation. Public safety. We’re looking for aggressive drivers. Speeding. Tailgating. Reckless operation. The idea is hopefully citations will change people’s behavior.

Q: How can you tell a driver is drunk?

A: What you see a lot with drunk drivers at night is high speed and no headlights, weaving in their lanes, crossing center lines, making moves without signaling their moves. Sometimes we'll have them driving really slowly, which gets our attention.

During the day it’s not as easy because you have so much congestion and traffic and there are so many people who drive aggressively out there. We get a lot of citizen complaints like "a gentleman is sitting and drinking a beer while driving."

Q: Police reports often list a drunk driving suspect as "clearly impaired." What are those signs?

A: Your first interaction is normally speaking. I approach the car and I say: "I'm Officer Scharlau. May I see your driver's license, registration and proof of insurance?" Then they start slurring their words, speaking incoherently, babbling. Incoherent.

We're also looking for physical issues: When you're asking for their license and they're fumbling with purse or wallet, can’t manipulate the driver's license out of their wallet, pulling stuff out of the glove box. If we have them exit the vehicle, how is their stance? How is their gait? Are they using the car to hold themselves up. Do you have to catch them? I've had times when we can't do the standard field sobriety tests because the person can't even stand up.

Q: What's the highest blood alcohol level content you've encountered?

A: The highest I've encountered is a .34 for that. Obviously, we have the legal side for the DWI. But in cases like that, we immediately call for first aid and medical. It’s life-threatening. The person was obliterated. This was actually an individual attempting to drive out of a parking lot at a bar.

Q: What's the worst drunk driving accident you've worked on?

A: The worst one I remember was a fatal that was a motorcycle crash on the Kensington Expressway. It was quite a few years ago. Speed and impairment. He ended up losing his life over it.

We had a driving while impaired by drugs where the child was killed in the accident. How do you talk to that mom that was at fault for the crash and at fault for the death of that child? Nowadays with the new DWI laws, when you have a child in your car, that turns it into a felony which I think is very appropriate. When you drink and drive not only are you endangering your life but the general public and then when you take a child and put them in the vehicle with you, that’s horrible.

Q: How do you detect DWI involving drugs?

A: If they're talking to me and slurring their speech and incoherent and I don’t smell any alcohol, and I use breath screening and they have a zero for alcohol, but there's drug paraphernalia or prescription bottles, then we know they're impaired by a drug. That can be a legal prescribed drug or narcotics. They're still impaired.

Q: Are fewer people drunk driving since Uber and Lyft started?

A: It should go down significantly, but that has not occurred. Not significantly. There are so many resources out there and the consequences are so much more severe than 30 years ago that there’s no excuse. If they prepared before they drank, they wouldn’t find themselves in these situations.

Q: What's the craziest thing a DWI suspect has said or done?

A: I had one individual: He had a crash with a big, yellow school bus. The school bus was stopped at a red light and he crashed into the back of it. He passes the school bus on the wrong side, stops enough at the passenger side doorway to flip the driver off, then blows through the red light. He made it about two miles from the crash scene and we pulled up. He refused to do any field sobriety tests. He said: "No reason to. Take me to jail. You got me. I'm drunk. I was drinking everything. Drinking all over. So just take me to jail. You got me."

We’ve had  crash scenes where they're sitting in their car still drinking alcohol because they were so shook up from the accident. We've had multiple situations where people are overdosing in their vehicle with their car stopped in the middle of the intersection.

Q: Any advice for drivers this holiday?

A: If they’re going to drink, don’t drive. Have a designated driver. Have good friends and family who are willing to engage. And then to the general public: If you see something that is unsafe, call 911.

Q: Will you be working on the Fourth of July?

A: Yes, I am.




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