Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

pIn July, mourners created a memorial in Carmichael where a drunken driver allegedly mowed down two people and four dogs as they were in a crosswalk.

Editorial: We need to get serious about DUI

Published: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Many of us were horrified by the July hit-and-run in Carmichael. A car sped through a crosswalk and ran over a couple walking their four dogs. A repeat DUI offender could face murder charges because the man later died.

We ought to be just as outraged by the daily, deadly toll that drunken drivers take.

Last Monday, a pickup driven by another repeat offender careened down an embankment and hit a tree in Yolo County. His wife and daughter were killed; he was arrested on two counts of felony DUI causing death and could face additional charges.

Four days earlier, two people were killed and a third subsequently died in a head-on crash in Sacramento County's Rosemont area. The suspect, who was on probation for alcohol-related reckless driving, faces manslaughter and DUI charges.

It's easy to become complacent about drunken driving, because it happens so frequently. But we do so at our own risk. As Foon Rhee explored in a column last Sunday, drunken driving is a particular problem in Sacramento, which year after year has the highest rate of deaths and injuries in alcohol-related collisions among California's largest cities, and one of the highest rates of DUI arrests.

The focus ought to be on repeat offenders. Some are a bigger threat to public safety than violent criminals.

In 2009, the most recent figures available, 375 defendants in Sacramento County were convicted of a third DUI and 105 of at least a fourth. Statewide, about 8,000 were convicted of a third DUI and more than 2,400 of at least a fourth.

To see if tougher laws would help, officials can look to two studies in Sacramento County. In a 2009 test, vehicles of repeat DUI offenders were immediately impounded. The results could be available within a year.

In July 2010, a pilot program in Sacramento, Alameda, Los Angeles and Tulare counties began requiring DUI offenders to install ignition interlocks – devices that force drivers to blow into an alcohol detector to start their cars. The state Department of Motor Vehicles is to report to the Legislature by January 2015, but other studies suggest the interlock devices can reduce repeat offenses by two-thirds.

We also need to make sure that there are effective education and counseling programs. In 2010-11, nearly 154,000 DUI offenders were enrolled in state programs and nearly 131,000 were judged to have successfully completed them. But only five counties offer intensive 30-month programs for those with three or more DUI convictions.

Police need to be vigilant, but many departments are stretched thin. And laws can do only so much.

It has to start with each one of us.

If we go out drinking, we should make sure there's a designated driver, or make plans to use transit. We can't look the other way when a tipsy friend or relative tries to get behind the wheel. Bartenders, waiters and their bosses must take responsiblity and not serve intoxicated customers.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, deaths in alcohol-related crashes were almost halved between 1982 and 2010. Yet, that still means more than 10,000 Americans were killed in 2010 – an average of one every hour. That included 791 Californians.

It is well worth the effort – and well within our ability – to prevent more lives from being needlessly lost.

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