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Killers on Four Wheels : Communities must find better ways to keep drunk drivers off the road

June 25, 1995

Teodolo Gallardo Bermudes, charged with eight counts of second-degree murder after his pickup truck smashed into a slow-moving car near Beaumont a week ago, had at least three prior arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, two within the last year. At the time of last Sunday's crash, Bermudes was on probation after a conviction for drunk driving; authorities say he also was very drunk, with a blood alcohol level "perhaps double" the 0.08% legal standard.

Bermudes had been given alcohol counseling after his earlier convictions. His license had been lifted and he was of course under court order not to operate a vehicle. As in so many cases, that order, the counseling, the prior arrests all proved to have no deterrent value. In an instant on the night of Father's Day, eight people ranging in age from 2 months to 21 years died horribly.

Almost one-third of the nearly 150,000 people convicted of drunken driving in California each year have prior convictions for the same crime. Note that these numbers apply only to those who are caught . By some estimates, 75% of those whose licenses have been suspended for drunk driving continue to drive. The warning implicit in these figures is that on any given moment on any street or highway, motorists may encounter drivers who are a grave threat to life, limb and property.

Obviously it's desirable to keep those who are repeatedly cited for drunk driving from getting back behind the wheel. The problem is, where are they to be kept pending trial?

Chronic overcrowding in Los Angeles County jails, made worse by the new "three strikes" law, has already led to a decision to release most misdemeanor drunk-driving suspects who are awaiting trial. That may seem preferable to releasing suspects being held for rape, spousal abuse or other deliberate acts of violence, but the random and unpredictable violence that drunk drivers are capable of committing certainly is no less threatening to the community. We are all potential victims of that violence. And we all have a stake in seeing more effective preventive actions taken.

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