September 8, 2011 |

Former trooper targeted drivers

Former state trooper Don Otis dedicated his energy to keeping young people from driving drunk instead of trying to keep them from drinking.

"I was never sure I was doing the right thing. People said I should find the parties and bust everybody I could, but my approach was making sure no one who was drunk got behind the wheel," Otis said this week in a phone interview from Hobson, Mont.

He said he also feared that patrolling parties effectively pushed them further out the road, creating an even longer drive for potential drunk drivers.

Otis said the number of drunken driving fatalities declined during his tenure from about three per year to maybe one every three years, but never stopped. He worked as the state trooper in Haines from 1990 to 2000 and also served as City of Haines mayor.

There were no easy answers to stemming underage drinking, he said. "It was a problem and it consumed an awful lot of my time. I remember sitting on the side of the road at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, thinking, ‘I’m 50 years old. I’m too old to be doing this.’ It was a difficult problem."

When he came across a drinking party, Otis said he would approach youths and ask who would be driving each of the cars parked there. "I wanted a designated driver for every car, and I’d let them know I was going to be out on the road when the party broke up. Then I would stop everyone I could."

Occasionally at parties he’d charge someone with minor consuming, but only if they were obviously drunk, he said.

"As soon as you drive in (to a party), there’s nobody around a beer. Suddenly it’s a question of whether you’re going to hide in the bushes (to see them drinking). It gets to be on the ridiculous side," Otis said.

Otis said he made it a point to work weekend nights. "Every Friday and Saturday night, you need to be out there."

Still, he said, there are many more places to drink on the road system than a trooper can check. "You’ve got to check to the end of at least three different roads. You can spend hours. I’d go out at eight, and a lot of times the parties didn’t even start until 11 or 12," he said.

Pick-ups full of shipping pallets were a reliable clue, as many parties involved a bonfire, he said. He also lit up piles of pallets he’d find in remote spots in advance of parties.

Nabbing those who supply minors with alcohol foiled him, he said. "I don’t know how you do that. Even if they do tell you who gave it to them, that’s still not proof."

Otis said underage drinking is inevitable. "It’s illegal, but you can’t shut it off. I wanted the kids to know they couldn’t drive drunk. Driving drunk is what kills people."