SANTA ANA — Orange County had only one traffic death during the five-day Christmas weekend, and law officials are crediting the stepped-up effort to arrest drunk drivers as a major reason for the decline in holiday fatalities.
Other county officials said anti-drug and alcoholism programs that help people recognize the danger of driving under the influence have had an effect.
"People don't want to go to jail," said Bill Edelman, manager of drug programs for the county Health Care Agency. "I think people are beginning to look at the consequences of getting into a car and driving under the influence of any substance. Law enforcement efforts, especially sobriety checkpoints, have had an impact."
Some jurisdictions, such as the California Highway Patrol, reported higher numbers of drunk-driving arrests compared to last year. Other departments reported a decrease, which they said may reflect more caution on the part of drivers. Officials said these two trends are not contradictory--fewer drunk drivers are on the highways but concentrated efforts, such as those of the CHP, sometimes result in a higher number of arrests.
Virtually all agreed that getting drunk and drug-influenced drivers off the highway was a key to the county's relatively safe Christmas.
The Christmas holiday death toll was lower than it has been for the past five years, according to the Orange County coroner's office. The county had four highway traffic deaths during Christmas 1986, five in 1987, seven in 1988 and five in 1989, the coroner reported.
Meanwhile, during the five-day Christmas weekend this year, 404 people were arrested on drunk-driving charges in Orange County. The CHP arrested 152 of the total, and the remaining arrests were by all other police jurisdictions in the county. The CHP said its drunk-driving arrests in the county this year were up 36% compared to last year.
Lt. Richard J. Olson, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said comparison data is not available for all other police jurisdictions because he began assembling holiday drunk-driving arrest statistics this year for the first time. Olson, however, said he thinks the number of drunk-driving arrests is up this year compared to other Christmas holidays.
The sole traffic fatality between 6 p.m. Friday and 12:01 a.m. Wednesday was the death of a 19-year-old Fountain Valley man at 5:30 a.m. Saturday on the San Diego Freeway at the Magnolia Street on-ramp. Deputy Coroner William King said the youth, Major J. Johnson, lost control of the car and crashed into a call box. King said there was no indication that the accident was alcohol- or drug-related.
Arresting alcohol-impaired drivers has been easier for police this Christmas season. A new state law that became effective Jan. 1 lowered the legal blood-alcohol level from the 0.10 to 0.08.
Some cities, including Fullerton, reported that increased efforts to halt drunk drivers had led to higher arrest totals this year. Lt. Bud Lathrop said Fullerton had 534 driving-under-the-influence arrests in 1989 and has made 619 such arrests so far this year.
But in Garden Grove, police reported that a sobriety checkpoint on Saturday night stopped about 1,100 cars and did not find a single drunk driver.
Garden Grove Traffic Officer Fred McLean said the absence of drunk drivers at the checkpoint indicated that people are being more cautious about drinking. "It seems that if there's a lot of publicity that there's going to be a checkpoint, more people are using designated drivers," he said.
In Huntington Beach, police arrested 11 suspected drunk driver during the five-day holiday. Lt. Ed McErlain said he had no number for comparison purposes but believes that the number of arrests is low compared to other years. He too said this is a sign that fewer drunks are behind the wheel.
"We like to think that our enforcement, combined with education efforts, are working," McErlain said.
"The thing you like is never getting (drunk-driving accidents) to begin with," added Sgt. Richard S. Zschoche of the Anaheim Police Traffic Bureau. "You're looking for the deterrent factor."
Anaheim was among Orange County cities that stepped up roving police patrols looking for inebriated drivers during the holidays. "We started this on Thanksgiving . . . and will continue right through New Year's," Zschoche said.
The county's hundreds of Alcoholics Anonymous chapters aided the efforts to keep drunk drivers off the streets by holding more meetings than during non-holiday weeks. Some AA groups held what they called "marathon," or round-the-clock, meetings so that people with alcohol problems had a place to go regardless of the time of day.
Ron LaPorte, manager of alcoholism programs for the county's Health Care Agency, said Wednesday that he feels certain that education and prevention efforts are now paying off.