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Only One Drunk Driver in 500 Is Caught : Enforcement: Even with tough Highway Patrol policy, probability of arrest in California is small. But in other states, the odds against may be 2,000 to one.

November 02, 1994|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The odds of being caught driving drunk are surprisingly low, but still higher in California than in most other states, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The probability of being arrested while driving under the influence is estimated at one in 500 in California, where efforts to keep intoxicated drivers off the roads are comparatively aggressive, said Paul Snodgrass, a spokesman for the federal agency's regional office in San Francisco.

"In a state with a high drunk-driving arrest rate such as California, where you have an aggressive police force such as the California Highway Patrol, you may get away with it 500 times before you get caught," Snodgrass said. "That is, you may get caught the first time driving drunk, or maybe the five-hundredth."

"But it is as much as one in 2,000 . . . in other states," Snodgrass said. The estimates are based on the number of licensed drivers in a state compared to the number of drunk-driving arrests.

A 210-pound man such as Marco Villegas Ramirez, suspect in the death Monday of a La Habra police officer, could consume as many as 12 drinks within three hours to raise his blood-alcohol content to the 0.18% level at which authorities said Ramirez tested, according to Bill Madison of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Ramirez was arrested on suspicion of murder after his car allegedly ran a red light and collided with Officer Michael Osornio's patrol car, fatally injuring Osornio.

That 0.18% level--more than twice the legal limit of 0.08--could be reached by drinking a dozen 12-ounce beers, or 12 four-ounce glasses of wine or 12 one-ounce shots of whiskey within three hours, Madison said. Food consumption can also affect blood-alcohol level.

Police investigators were not certain Tuesday how much alcohol Ramirez had consumed or how long he had been drinking.

Reidel Post, executive director of the Orange County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Tuesday's tragedy highlights the vulnerability of all motorists and pedestrians to drunk drivers.

"If a police officer . . . gets hit and killed, then I say we're all vulnerable," Post said. "It's just very tragic."

Unfortunately, Post said, many people in California still believe that "it's never going to happen to them." Many still view drunk driving as if it's "the least violent of all violent crimes."

"But when you have a piece of machinery weighing as much as a car slamming into a body or a car, that is violent," she said.

In Orange County, drunk-driving fatalities decreased by 43% from 1988 to 1993. The number of injuries from drunk-driving accidents decreased by 43% in the same period, according to CHP figures.

More stringent laws, aggressive enforcement, sobriety checkpoints and publicity have combined to help reduce casualties in the county, Post said.

Ironically, adults in Orange County admitted to drinking and driving more than twice as often as residents of the rest of the state, according to a survey released in May by the county's Health Care Agency. In that study, 7% of Orange County residents who responded to the survey admitted to drinking and driving.

Before MADD and other high-profile groups became established, society viewed drunk drivers as something comical, said Steve Kohler, a CHP spokesman in Sacramento.

"I'm talking 10 to 12 years ago," Kohler said. "Teen-agers especially thought that driving drunk was a joke. But the increasing awareness and tragedy to people's lives have changed attitudes. It's not funny anymore, and it's expensive."

Drunk Driving Trend

Yearly totals of deaths and injuries related to drunk driving each declined 43% in Orange County in 1993 as compared to 1988:

Year Deaths Injuries 1993 76 3,061

Source: California Highway Patrol

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