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Effort to Curb Drinking and Driving Finds a New Focus

Advocates send a translated message to Latinos, who face greater risks.

February 15, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sabina Urbina turned her "nightmare that will never end" -- the loss of a son and two nephews to drunk drivers -- into action by founding a chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Las Cruces, N.M.

AIDS educator Julio Olmos realized that alcohol abuse was a common thread in his clients' problems and that drunk-driving crashes were taking more lives than HIV, so he started an information campaign, using stories of people in his Durham, N.C., community and junkyard photos of their wrecked cars.

Urbina and Olmos represent a new kind of advocacy that is bringing the national crusade against drunk driving to Latinos. The nation's largest minority has been largely bypassed by mainstream prevention messages, researchers say, despite evidence that Latinos face a greater risk of becoming drunk-driving victims and offenders.

"Our population and our leadership have concentrated very much on other issues," said Alejandro Garcia, deputy director of the National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention. "It is now when we are paying attention to this."

Alcohol-related crashes kill about 17,400 people a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Progress in reducing that statistic has stalled lately, amid consensus that the easy gains have been made and further improvements will require new approaches.

Data from California and other states show that Latinos account for a disproportionate share of both drivers arrested for driving under the influence, or DUI, and those involved in alcohol-related crashes. Public-safety experts are concerned that the problem may worsen as Latinos' share of the population continues to increase.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has commissioned research to improve prevention strategies aimed at Latinos.

"If you want to address the national rate, the best way to do it is to affect as many people as you can," said Jeff Michael, who heads NHTSA's impaired-driving program.

Early indications from the research are that Latinos, in particular, respond to a message that emphasizes the risks to the family from drunk driving, rather than the effects on a person's job or health.

"It's not so much the individual risk of getting killed that resonates" with Latinos, said Maria Carmona, of the Maryland-based Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which is conducting the research for NHTSA. "It's the risk of being injured and not being able to provide for the family -- that's what we're trying to communicate."

Legal drinking ages in many Spanish-speaking countries are lower than in the United States. Family gatherings are the usual setting for a teenager's first drink.

"It's the way people were raised," said Urbina, the MADD activist from New Mexico. "When somebody gets married, there is beer. When a baby is born and the family celebrates, there is beer. When somebody baptizes a child, there is beer. When you have a quinceanera, there is beer.

"I try to make people realize it's OK if you drink, so long as you stay at home and don't get behind the wheel of a car."

Olmos, the North Carolina health educator, said one of his most powerful examples involved an acquaintance, the father of a 4-year-old girl. The man, a building contractor, went drinking after work one day and lost control of his pickup truck on the way home. He hit a pole and suffered a disabling head injury.

Before the accident, he had supported his family and was a star of weekend amateur soccer leagues. Now, paralyzed at age 30, he is being cared for at home by his mother, who had to come from Mexico. His wife is working to support the family. His prognosis is poor.

"The most important thing is to show how much an accident can cost, in physical and emotional terms," said Olmos, who takes his message to church groups, high schools and neighborhood gatherings.

With nearly 12 million Latino residents, the largest population of any state, California has been a priority for prevention efforts oriented toward Latinos. The state is a focus for "Pasa las Llaves," an educational campaign begun in 2001 by MADD to encourage drinkers to turn their car keys over to a designated driver.

At the federal level, NHTSA has developed a Spanish-language version of its "You Drink & Drive. You Lose" media campaign for television and radio.

Yet the government's data on drunk driving among Latinos remains incomplete, with gaps and contradictions in the statistical data.

The most recent NHTSA-sponsored study linking traffic fatalities and ethnicity is based on data at least a decade old. It found that Mexican Americans, who account for more than 60% of U.S. Latinos, had the second-highest alcohol-related fatality rates among drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. Only Native Americans had a higher death rate.

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