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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 41 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 41

You better watch out: Santa Maria Police and county organizations use state support to battle impaired driving

By KASEY BUBNASH

It was nearly midnight, and Todd was drunk again.

His addiction to drinking had cost him almost everything over the years, including his marriage, several jobs, and four driving under the influence (DUI) citations, which he said cost about $10,000 each. By Jan. 18, 2016, his parents were fed up, too, and they kicked him out.


PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

So Todd, who asked to have his last name omitted from this story for privacy reasons, packed everything he owned into his 1998 Ford Ranger pickup truck and left for Southern California, where he had friends with vacant couches. He’d been drinking, as usual, but he planned to drive through the night. Even if he had wanted to wait until morning, he didn’t have a place to sleep.

Just before midnight Todd lost control of his truck and crashed into the center divider of Highway 101 somewhere in Santa Barbara County. Oncoming cars quickly swerved around the crash. No one was injured, but Todd’s truck was totaled and his belongings inside it were destroyed. When law enforcement officials arrived, Todd said an on-scene Breathalyzer test revealed his blood alcohol concentration to be well above the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.

It was about 0.23 percent, he said, and he was cited for his fifth DUI.

Todd’s incident in 2016 was just one of many caused by impaired drivers in California that year. Impaired driving, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, is still the No. 1 killer on California roadways, according to Chris Cochran, assistant director of marketing and public affairs for the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Impaired drivers cause nearly 50 percent of all the state’s crashes, Cochran said, and while the state claims to have a handle on drunk driving, drugged driving is rapidly becoming a more prevalent issue, and the holiday season presents new threats for roadway safety each year.

“Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every year,” Cochran said. “That is a serious thing that makes us work extra hard.”

And although government and law enforcement agencies are making DUI and DUID prevention efforts at local, state, and national levels, intoxicated drivers haven’t gone away. In fact, the nation’s drunk driving related deaths increased, for the second year in a row, by 1.7 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fatal traffic crash data.

Costly consequences

Todd, who now lives in Santa Maria, has a full-time job and volunteers as an office manager and board member at the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Central Office, where he shares his story in an effort to discourage people from following in his footsteps. He’s been sober since his last DUI in 2016.

“And let’s hope this is it,” Todd said, “because I’m done.”

But his fifth DUI didn’t come without consequences. Todd said he spent a little more than four months in jail, followed by six months in a sober living facility, which he said was the time he needed to dry out and recover. He’ll be on probation for five years.

“You know, when I got dropped off at sober living, the only things I had were the clothes on my back,” Todd said. “Through my recovery and everything else and the kindness of the people in Santa Maria and in the program that I’ve met, I’ve been able to build a life, have a wardrobe, have a full-time job and these things.”


ENFORCEMENT OPERATIONS
The Santa Maria Police Department has been conducting DUI saturations and checkpoints for years. SMPD Traffic Bureau Supervisor Sgt. Duane Schneider said an increased presence of patrol officers is more successful in catching impaired drivers, while checkpoints are successful in deterring impaired driving before it happens.
FILE PHOTO

But Todd won’t be able to legally drive again until he completes 12 months of an 18-month multiple offender DUI program, after which he will qualify for a restricted license. A restricted license would allow him to drive only to treatment programs and work, and would require him to take an alcohol-free Breathalyzer test in order to start his car.

The DUI programs required by the Department of Motor Vehicles are costly, Todd said, and he won’t be able to enroll until he saves some money.

At Central Coast Headway, a nonprofit that offers a variety of post-DUI programs in Santa Maria and Lompoc, classes can cost hundreds of dollars. Drug and alcohol counselor Clemencia Figueroa said the organization’s three-month program costs a total of $478, $970 for the nine-month program, and $1,450 for 18 months.

The prices, she said, are some of the cheapest in the county, but enrollees frequently can’t afford to pay the program fees all at once and have to sign up for monthly payments.

Each of the programs’ requirements vary, Figueroa said. The three-month program includes eight substance abuse educational classes, seven group sessions, and three individual counseling sessions. The nine-month program includes eight classes, 22 group sessions, and eight counseling sessions. The 18-month program, which is usually reserved for individuals who have been cited for more than two DUIs, includes six classes, six re-entry sessions, 26 individual counseling sessions, and 26 group sessions with bi-weekly attendance.

The programs all focus on both alcohol and drug impaired driving and abuse through a comprehensive curriculum, which is offered in English, Spanish, and Mixtec. Figueroa said the program is kept as simple as possible.

“Sometimes people don’t have a high school education,” Figueroa said. “So when there is a lot of medical terminology, people don’t understand. So we try to keep it really simple so that people understand the message that it’s not just a money problem. It’s mental health. It’s their physical health. It’s the family, and it’s the community that drinking and driving is impacting in a negative way.”

Central Coast Headway has a 70 percent completion rate, Figueroa said, but not everyone who starts the program is financially or emotionally ready to complete it. Some people do return after already completing the program.

Comparing collisions
For the year 2015, the California Office of Traffic Safety ranked Santa Maria as the 9th worst city of its size statewide for alcohol-involved collisions. Santa Barbara County was ranked the 22nd worst county in California for alcohol-related collisions that year.

After four other DUIs in several different counties, Todd has been through the post-DUI programs before, and said he’s looking forward to seeing how Santa Barbara County’s strategy compares.

“The DUI program I took in Thousand Oaks in Ventura County was really good for the non-alcoholic,” Todd said.

In that program, Todd said he learned information on preparing to run out of alcohol, in case of emergencies, and having several plans for transportation after drinking. But another program in Madera County was more geared toward addicts. There he learned about the structures of families affected by alcoholism and the impact drugs and alcohol have on the brain and overall physical health.

Program structures that require self-help, like attending AA or church, are beneficial, Todd said. But he said there’s only so much that can be done to help an addict.

“They do the most they can,” Todd said. “But there’s really nothing that can deter you. Personally, if I want to drink there’s nothing in my consciousness that can stop me. I can know wholeheartedly that if I take that first drink I’m going to die, but that won’t stop me. There’s nothing, there’s no consequence, or anything that can stand in my way.

“And the reality is that jail time and these kinds of things are only going to stop people who aren’t alcoholics,” Todd said. “That will stop the general public from getting into DUI situations.”

Prevention efforts

Since the nation began attacking drunk driving on all fronts nearly 35 years ago, California’s alcohol-involved collision fatality rates have dropped by nearly 50 percent, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety’s Cochran.

But about 15 years ago the state began seeing an uptick in drugged driving incidents, Cochran said, and the issue has rapidly increased in the last five years. Drugged driving—driving while intoxicated by any drugs, including prescriptions, marijuana, and even over-the-counter medications—has become so prevalent that the Office of Traffic Safety recently launched a campaign called, “DUI Doesn’t Just Mean Booze.”

The campaign includes a variety of educational and public awareness work, including media broadcasts, social and digital media posts, and billboard ads. December will be dedicated to prescription medication awareness, while ads produced in January will focus on marijuana.


BY THE NUMBERS

“The drug portion is so new that we’re still in the phase of basic education and letting people know it is a problem and why,” Cochran said.

A few years ago, Cochran said the Office of Traffic Safety began work on a DUID report, which will include current best practices and guidelines on mitigating DUID issues for law enforcement, courts, crime labs, educators, and emergency responders in the future. That should be completed within the next six months, Cochran said.

Impaired driving remains the Office of Traffic Safety’s No. 1 priority. This year alone, Cochran said the Office of Traffic Safety dedicated about $18.3 million to drunk driving prevention efforts—those could include grants, special enforcement or educational programs, toxicology equipment, or funding for probation officers, but not public awareness—and $13 million to drugged driving prevention.

Some of this year’s funding went to the Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD), which received a $365,000 grant from the Office of Traffic Safety on Oct. 1 to increase DUI checkpoints, traffic safety checks, and improve bicycle and pedestrian safety.

The grant will help fund several DUI checkpoints, during which officers stop every car that passes through a previously publicized area, and 34 DUI saturations, which are unpublicized enforcement operations where the department’s Traffic Unit spends about nine hours looking specifically for impaired drivers.

SMPD Traffic Bureau Supervisor Sgt. Duane Schneider said saturations are typically more successful in catching impaired drivers in the act, while the goal of checkpoints is to scare people into avoiding impaired driving.

Through the grant, the department is required to publicize the checkpoint dates and times, Schneider said, and they don’t net a lot of DUI arrests. Some individuals share the checkpoint locations on social media, in hopes their friends will see the post and avoid the checkpoint.

“But we hope at least some people will say, ‘You know what, let’s just get a designated driver,’” Schneider said.

The department has conducted two DUI checkpoints this year, during which officers stopped 1,089 cars. The department’s seven DUI saturations resulted in 259 cars stopped, 103 field sobriety tests administered, and eight DUI citations. Another checkpoint is scheduled for Dec. 29.

The Santa Barbara County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CADA) also has several programs dedicated to the prevention of impaired driving, according to President and CEO Ed Stonefelt. The most successful of those programs, Stonefelt said, is teen court, which has a 90 percent participation and completion rate.

When a minor is cited for possession of drugs or alcohol, kids can go to teen court in lieu of the juvenile justice system. Teen court is based out of CADA’s Santa Maria office, and it’s a due process where students serve as jurors for their peers who have been charged with a crime. The court is presided over by a judge, and ends with a convicted teen and his or her family signing a contract that requires them to complete an educational or treatment program.

“When a person is finished with the process, a case manager will oversee the process from start to finish, they stay out of the juvenile justice system for the infraction that occurred,” Stonefelt said. “We find teen court to be extremely powerful.”


ON THE LOOKOUT
Santa Maria Police Department officers conducted a DUI saturation enforcement operation on Dec. 8, where the department’s traffic unit watched for impaired drivers on city streets.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

CADA works with at-risk kids to promote healthy lifestyles through several other programs, including its Friday Night Live Prevention Clubs and Youth Specialists Service.

Despite all the department’s enforcement operations, which have been ongoing and funded by grants for at least the past two years, and educational programs in schools, DUI rates are slightly up this year from last.

In 2016, Traffic Supervisor Schneider said Santa Maria saw no DUI related fatalities, and 105 of the city’s total 1,800 collisions were DUI related. This year, 155 of the city’s 1,700 total traffic collisions were DUI related, resulting in 34 injuries and one death.

“So obviously it’s up a little this year,” Schneider said. “Obviously we have people drinking and driving in Santa Maria and having driving accidents or hit-and-runs. So that’s why we applied for the grant, to focus specifically on impaired driving.”

On top of those numbers, the holiday season adds an increase in all kinds of dangerous driving factors, including celebratory drinking, heavy traffic, worsened weather, and shorter hours of light. Autumn and winter months tend to be the worst for traffic incidents in general, according to data collected by the Office of Traffic Safety.

“There tends to be more drinking around this time because we have Christmas parties,” Schneider said. “So on the holidays make a plan, don’t drink and drive, and stay safe.”

Although he’s back on his feet, the damage is already done for Todd, who now works to prevent others from driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. His advice is simple: Don’t do it.

“I can’t say it enough: As expensive as a taxicab is, a DUI is a thousand times more expensive,” Todd said. “As many times as you may have gotten away with it before, the chances of you getting away with it every time diminish every time you do it. And it only takes once to kill somebody.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached by email at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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