Police sedan in front, taxi in back. That's the Huntington Beach Police Department's new statement vehicle. And their point?
It's a no-brainer, unless you're very tipsy: New Year's Eve partiers should choose to take a taxi, or they could wind up in a patrol car.
The rolling billboard, called Choose Your Ride, is for looks only. But it's spreading an important message in a city where a dwindling number of police officers has coincided with a spike in the number of people dying in alcohol-related traffic accidents.
As those deaths rose, drunk driving arrests fell in Huntington Beach. But probably not because there were fewer drunks on the road. Officials believe that a reduction in officers over the years may be a factor in the changing numbers.
As of Dec. 15, the Police Department had tallied 675 DUI arrests and reported 330 alcohol-involved collisions and 10 alcohol-involved traffic deaths.
By comparison, there were 1,687 DUI arrests, 415 alcohol-involved collisions and two alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2009; and 1,004 arrests, 429 collisions and three deaths in 2012.
"A lack of enforcement is going to lead to an increased number of … alcohol-involved fatalities," said Sgt. Dave Dereszynski, who is in charge of the department's DUI enforcement.
Before the recession hit in 2008, the department had 237 officers. Two were designated as DUI officers and were funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, Dereszynski said.
But as staff numbers dropped amid recession-related spending cuts, so did the number of DUI arrests.
In 2012, the department lost its two DUI officers, Dereszynski said.
"That took away officers from having seven-day coverage of looking for DUIs and taking those drivers off the streets," he said. "Because of the economy, we also had fewer patrol officers on the streets. Those officers were busy covering other calls for service and didn't have the time to specifically look for drunk drivers."
Staffing reached its lowest point in 2013, with 193 officers covering Huntington Beach, though the department got back one DUI officer. That year, the department reported 731 DUI arrests, 356 alcohol-involved collisions and six alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
This year the city began hiring more officers and continued to have a DUI officer. There are now 214 officers on the force.
The city's population, however, also has increased, as have the numbers of tourists and other visitors.
"We have 14 [million] to 16 million visitors a year that come to Huntington Beach," said Police Chief Robert Handy, who added that this puts a strain on his department. "But … it's not an excuse. Every fatality is one too many, and we're doing everything we can to reduce that number."
Such as the police-car-taxi. Officers are hoping passersby will get the message.
"As people walk by, bicycle by or drive by," said Dereszynski, "they can have another reminder to drink responsibly and choose your best mode of transportation."