Sammamish has a drunk driving problem. It's not the 50 arrests a year in the city that's raising eyebrows, it's who they're finding behind the wheel.
Forty percent of the yearly drunk driving arrests in Sammamish involve people under the age of 21, and many of the drivers are under 18.
While it might not be surprising that young people are drinking and then getting behind the wheel, the rate in which they're doing it in Sammamish far outpaces its neighboring communities. Cities like Redmond and Issaquah report that about 10 to 15 percent of their drunk driving arrests involve people under 21.
So what's different about Sammamish?
Police Chief Nate Elledge doesn't know, and he's trying to find out. "It's not just an enforcement problem," Chief Elledge said. "We could stick police officers out there all day long and make arrest after arrest, but we need to bring the community in to prevent this before it happens."
That's why Chief Elledge started the Youth Impaired Driving Initiative," bringing together all segments of the community to get at why more kids are drinking and driving there as compared to other nearby cities. "Right now we're in the beginning stages," he said. "We've had two meetings. We're just trying to identify why this is an issue here in Sammamish, and then we're going to come up with action steps to say what we can do to combat this problem."
Chief Elledge said some people believe the high DUI rate among teens might have to do with Sammamish being a more affluent area where kids might have big parties while parents are out of town.
"That's the assumption people are automatically going to make, but I can tell you this is a great community with great kids," he said. "My goal is to prevent anybody from getting hurt so rather than just assume it's because we're Sammamish, this is why this is happening. I wanted to hear from community members on why they think it's happening."
Another theory surrounds the loss of the DARE program which disappeared because of budget cuts. Chief Elledge said some high school students believe earlier education on the risks of drinking and of drinking and driving might help change behavior. They told him that trying to reach kids in high school might be too late.
Chief Elledge has his own theories for why, including one for which he considers the city lucky. "Because we've never had a major incident up here, I think, maybe, people don't take it as seriously as they need to," he said. "Bringing awareness to this problem hopefully will reduce these incidents of drunk driving involving our youth."
The next community meeting about the city's problem with underage drunk drivers will be held Wednesday, March 27.
In response to some email requests and questions from KIRO Radio listeners and readers at MyNorthwest.com, I did a little extra stat checking to try and put these Sammamish numbers into some perspective.
The CDC reports about 22 percent of fatal drunk driving accidents nationally involved those under 21 and about 10 percent of kids admit to drinking and driving in self-reporting studies.
In 2010 in Washington, fatal drunk driving accidents by teens made up 14 percent of the total of drunk driving fatalities.
I also received an email from a KIRO listener asking whether these teens were from Sammamish or just passing through. I checked with the police this morning, and they say the majority of the arrests are locals.