Sacramento has a drinking problem.
Every year, Sacramento has the worst rate of deaths and injuries in alcohol- related collisions among California's largest cities. It also has one of the highest rates of drunken driving arrests.
One happened at a police checkpoint downtown last month. The woman wasn't falling-down drunk and had little trouble reciting her ABCs. But her preliminary blood-alcohol readings came back at more than twice the legal limit.
Handcuffed and taken to jail, the woman personified a point made by Stefanie Corbett, who was coordinating the Mothers Against Drunk Driving volunteers at the checkpoint. People know that drunken driving is bad; they just don't think it will happen to them.
"They don't understand how easy it is to get a DUI," she told me.
Ten blocks away in midtown, the Saturday night party crowd was having a good time, oblivious to the show of police force down the street.
One patron, Jeremiah Harvey, a 27-year-old lawyer, said many people aren't as afraid of getting a DUI as they used to be because the price isn't as high.
"Now, it's going to be expensive, but it's not going to ruin your life," he said, sipping a bourbon at de Vere's Irish Pub.
In Sacramento County, a first-time DUI offender typically pays about $2,000 in fines and court costs, has to spend at least 48 hours on a work project and serves three years on probation.
District Attorney Jan Scully and her top deputies are asking whether more should be done to deter drunken driving. That could mean tougher punishment, more public awareness efforts, perhaps more pressure on bars to stop serving intoxicated customers.
"Maybe we need to up the ante," Scully told me.
So what accounts for Sacramento's DUI problem?
There are no clear-cut explanations, but some theories make sense.
One is how easy it is get a drink. Per person, Sacramento has more groceries, drugstores and other liquor outlets to buy booze than any big city in the state, other than Bakersfield, according to state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control numbers.
It also has more bars, restaurants and other places to drink per capita than any major city other than San Francisco, a special case as a global tourist destination.
Sacramento's downtown-midtown core, home to more than 40 percent of the city's alcohol licensees, draws from across the region. "Those people are seeking nighttime entertainment, and they're going to be driving," says Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of the Midtown Business Association.
It hires private security guards, whose duties include steering drunken customers into cabs. Yet, bar owners don't want police patrols too close, for fear it will scare away customers. The association encourages bars to be responsible, while also sponsoring events like cocktail week that ended last Sunday.
"It's not that difficult of a balancing act," Studebaker told me. "We know what the law is, and we tell them to follow the law."
Partiers don't always have a designated driver; while the association partners with Yellow Cab, it's expensive to take a taxi for 30 or 40 miles.
For those who live closer, the relative lack of public transit makes a difference, especially at night, when drivers in fatal crashes are four times more likely to be drunk.
Regional Transit eliminated light-rail service after 9 p.m. in budget cuts two years ago. It has taken until today for RT to restore that service, running light-rail trains to around midnight.
In San Francisco, by contrast, some Muni routes run all night, cabs are plentiful, and many people walk to bars. It recorded fewer than 1,500 DUI arrests in 2010, compared to more than 1,800 in Sacramento and nearly 8,000 in Sacramento County.
Another likely ingredient is the number of college students and young adults. It is 21- to 34-year-olds who are the most likely to be drunk if they're involved in a fatal crash.
And yet another factor could be that Sacramento is the state capital, where alcohol lubricates the wheeling and dealing. Public officials sometimes set a bad example. Just since spring 2010, state Finance Director Ana Matosantos, Assemblyman Martin Garrick and then-state Sen. Roy Ashburn all pleaded no contest to driving drunk downtown.
Society is more accepting
Whatever Sacramento's particular drinking culture, you also can't separate the city from broader trends in society.
Drinking, even to excess, seems more socially acceptable. It's played for laughs in hit movies such as "The Hangover," in which the characters get so wasted they can't remember what they did. Liquor and beer ads on TV send the message that you can't have fun without alcohol.
To be absolutely clear, there's nothing wrong with having a glass of wine or a beer or two. The issue is irresponsible drinking, then getting behind the wheel.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says surveys show that about 80 percent of the public sees drunken driving as a major threat to their safety. But one in five admitted driving within two hours of drinking themselves.
MADD, founded in 1980, moved public opinion and successfully crusaded for tougher laws. Now, it's on the defensive against criticism that it is "neo-prohibitionist."
"MADD is not against drinking, it's against driving drunk," says Brenda Frachiseur, assistant state director for the California chapter.
The group gives four of a possible five stars to California's DUI laws. It withholds the fifth star because, unlike 17 other states, California doesn't require all offenders to get ignition interlock devices, which force them to blow into an alcohol detector to drive their vehicles.
In July 2010, a pilot program started in Sacramento, Alameda, Los Angeles and Tulare counties, making the devices mandatory for first-time offenders. The state Department of Motor Vehicles says it's too early to tell whether the requirement is working, but other studies suggest they can reduce repeat offenses by two-thirds.
Many may believe that the battle has already been won.
In 1982, drunken drivers killed an estimated 21,000 people, nearly half of all traffic fatalities. Since 1997, the proportion of alcohol-related deaths has hovered around 30 percent. By 2010, the toll plummeted to 10,228, including 791 in California, the biggest annual decrease in 14 years.
'It's difficult to scare people'
Just Thursday, two people were killed and two critically injured in a head-on crash in Sacramento County caused by a suspected drunken driver. But nowadays, it takes a particularly horrific case for DUI to cause public outrage like the couple and their four dogs hit by a car speeding at 80 mph through a crosswalk in Carmichael in July. Only the woman survived.
Paul William Walden, who may be charged with murder, is a repeat offender, with three DUI convictions in the past decade. The most recent figures, for 2009, show that 1,346 defendants in Sacramento County were convicted of a second DUI, 375 of a third and 105 of at least a fourth within the previous 10 years. About 27 percent of those arrested statewide for DUI were repeat offenders, down from 37 percent in 1989.
Enforcement of DUI laws rarely grabs public attention, either. It isn't difficult to spot offenders, particularly during times like Labor Day weekend, when the Highway Patrol averages 1,500 DUI arrests.
As usual, Sacramento police stepped up patrols during the two-week national "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" crackdown that ends Monday. The checkpoint last month at Fifth and L streets near Downtown Plaza one of 15 so far this year screened drivers headed to Interstate 5. Police officers checked for glassy eyes or booze on drivers' breath; MADD volunteers handed out safety brochures.
Drunken drivers get caught even though the checkpoints have to be announced in advance, there are websites that track them and drivers can get Twitter alerts. In about 4 1/2 hours at the downtown operation, of 932 vehicles stopped, 12 drivers were checked for possible DUI and five were arrested.
Activists worry that public concern has waned. "It's difficult to scare people," says Leon Owens, trauma director at Mercy San Juan Medical Center. "We do not bring home the message with enough intensity."
Besides building awareness, reducing drunken driving will take more counseling, increased enforcement and the right laws, he says. He pushed through a 2009 Sacramento County test of impounding vehicles from repeat offenders immediately upon arrest, and hopes to have the results within a year.
Owens, 61, has a personal reason for his mission: Ten years ago, his 21-year-old son Jake was killed driving drunk in Carmichael.
All of us should be concerned. Just like individuals trying to sober up, the first step to recovery for our community is to admit there's a problem.