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YOUR WHEELS

When the fun stops in summer

In California, more alcohol-related accidents happen in August, with seasonal parties escalating the costly, deadly toll.

August 25, 2004|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

Just as we're savoring the last weeks of summer, word comes that August is the most dangerous month in California for drinking and driving.

More people here are killed and injured in alcohol-related collisions during August than any other month, according to an analysis by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Talk about putting a damper on your backyard wine party or barbecue beer bash.

Why August? That's when many of us are on vacation, enjoying recreational activities and consuming lots of alcohol and/or drugs, said Steven Bloch, the senior Auto Club researcher who did the analysis. From the Hollywood Bowl to Dodger games to picnics in the mountains, alcohol is often part of our summer pastimes. Unfortunately, when the music stops and the games are over, tipsy fans, picnickers and partygoers often slide behind the wheels of their vehicles.

In the Augusts from 1999 to 2003, 618 people were killed and 13,853 were injured statewide in alcohol-related collisions, according to Bloch's analysis of state and federal data. July had the second-highest number of such casualties, with 624 fatalities and 13,732 injuries, according to the analysis, which included passenger vehicles, SUVs and motorcycles. February had the lowest number of deaths and injuries, with 456 fatalities and 11,293 injuries during the five-year period.

Though California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall said it sounds reasonable that more people drink and drive during the summer, he said the CHP has found that New Year's weekend, the Fourth of July, Super Bowl weekend and even Halloween and St. Patrick's Day are also notorious for high rates of alcohol-related accidents.

What is troubling to Marshall and the CHP is the fact that the number of alcohol-related deaths and injuries is on the rise in California, despite strict laws and increased education.

"It's been 25 years since efforts began to educate and tighten laws on drinking and driving," Marshall said. The number of deaths and injuries initially went down. Then the numbers leveled off in the 1990s. Now they are inching back up again.

"It's because there's a new generation out there that hasn't heard the message or just doesn't care," he said. In fact, young drivers are "least responsive" to arguments against drunk driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Of the 4,215 vehicle fatalities in 2003 in California, 1,626 or 39% of them were alcohol related, according to NHTSA statistics.

But alcohol is not the only culprit in many of these accidents, said CHP Sgt. Helena Williams, California statewide coordinator of the Drug Recognition Evaluator program.

Illicit drugs, as well as prescription drugs, have always been a factor in impaired driving, she said. (In 1993 research, the traffic safety administration found that 45% of collisions involved alcohol and marijuana.) But now CHP officers and other law enforcement personnel are being trained by the Drug Recognition Evaluator program to recognize the symptoms of drug use and how it impairs driving.

The CHP lumps together stats on drug- and alcohol-related collisions. But anecdotally, Williams says they are seeing an increase in the involvement of drugs, especially prescription drugs in combination with alcohol, marijuana or stimulants, including cocaine.

If convicted of a first-time DUI offense in California, you can expect to face a minimum total cost of $12,116, according to the automobile club. That includes minimum attorney and legal fees of $2,500; minimum fines of $468; penalties, $780; vehicle towing and impounding, $187; alcohol education class, $500; a minimum of $7,300 in increased auto insurance premiums over the subsequent seven-year period; $100 for the state's victim restitution fund; and a $125 DMV license reissue fee, in addition to a $156 fee for booking, fingerprinting and photos.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanrite@aol.com.

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