Booze, Driving Don't Mix, But Lots of Jacks Miss the Point

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Confessions of a Drunk Driver: The Sequel.

Last week we heard from Jack, a Costa Mesa man who admits to drinking and driving--sometimes both at once--even on occasions when he knows he doesn't belong behind the wheel.

Among other things, Jack said he had no intention of stopping or modifying his dangerous habit. That would require too many changes in his life style, he said.

Tougher laws, a changing public opinion, even watching a child die before his eyes in a non-alcohol-related crash as he did a few years ago--nothing has gotten through to this guy.

Bad news. And it gets worse.

Nothing is likely to reach him until it's too late, says David Larson, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism's Orange County office and a former California Highway Patrol officer.

"I don't think anybody can get him to stop until there's some kind of crisis," Larson says. "A drunk-driving arrest or an accident could do it. Maybe."

But not necessarily, says Janet Cater, executive director of the Orange County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

She recalls the recent case of a drunk driver who had killed a man and seriously injured himself in a Saddleback Valley accident. "He was asked if he thought drinking and driving was wrong, and he said: 'Yes.' Then they said to him, 'You've spent four days in the (intensive-care unit), and you've been told you killed a man. Do you now realize drinking and driving is dangerous?' And his immediate reaction was: 'No.' "

But the worst news of all is that there are plenty of Jacks out there, according to both Cater and Larson.

"Unfortunately, he's not alone," Cater says. "There are other people who think the same way. You see a lot of guys like this in second-offender school." To Cater, Jack is "the generic drunk driver. He could be any of them."

How many Jacks are there? Hard to say, exactly. But Cater estimates there are about a million drunk-driving trips each year in Orange County, and only 18,000 to 22,000 arrests. That's trips, not drivers, and Jack himself probably drinks and drives a couple of hundred times a year.

Those numbers mean that each time Jack or someone like him drinks too much and gets behind the wheel, he has about a 2% chance of getting caught.

"We know that every time a drunk driver is arrested, he's probably driven at least 500 times at the same level of intoxication," Larson says.

Some Jacks are more inebriated than others, however, and Cater says those who are just over the line can sometimes be as dangerous as those who are on the verge of passing out.

"Police officers tell me that the most dangerous drivers are the ones (with a blood alcohol level of) 0.10 and the ones who are 0.30. The person with a high blood-alcohol count is unable to control the car, may pass out or become disoriented," Cater says. Drivers who know they're impaired but are still relatively alert "will try to drive slower, and if nothing untoward happens, they may get home OK. But the 0.10 is as dangerous as the high level because at that stage, people think they're fine. They're impaired enough that they're a real menace, but they're not compensating for the impairment at all. . . .

"People are kidding themselves if they think they can have a few drinks and get out into the car and everything's going to be fine."

Cater says 6,000 people were injured in alcohol-related traffic accidents last year in the county, and there were 69 fatalities.

So far, Jack has managed to avoid both arrests and accidents.

But Cater says: "He's playing Russian roulette. And he talks like the only life he's gambling with is his own. He says he's accepting responsibility for his actions.

"Is he able to bring someone back to life? Unless he can bring people back to life and put their bodies back together and make them like they were before, he's taking a chance that's not his to take," Cater says. "He has no right to risk your life and my life or the lives of anyone else because of his own need to drink. He's playing God.

"He says he couldn't live with himself if he injured or killed someone by drinking and driving. But he still does it. You talk to the paramedics and they're sick of hearing drunk drivers say, 'I never meant to hurt anybody,' when people are dead and dying all around them."

Jack calls himself an anachronism, admitting he's out of sync with the attitude shifts of the past decade toward drinking and driving.

But Larson uses another "A" word to explain why Jack won't change: Alcoholism.

"I diagnosed him as an alcoholic after the first four paragraphs" of last week's column, says Larson, a certified alcoholism counselor. "Obviously alcohol is so important in his life that he can't wait to get home and drink.

"What he's calling his rationalization is really the classic denial. He's always drinking just enough to take the rough edges off his life and make him feel good. He doesn't consider himself under the influence. The drug is telling him it's OK.

"The trouble is, he's not lying in the gutter on 4th Street in Santa Ana, so he doesn't think he's an alcoholic. But deep down he knows it, and he knows that he can't stop."

Larson challenges Jack to a face-to-face meeting. "He says he's a moderate to heavy drinker. I'd like to give him an assessment and tell him exactly what level he's on."

And he suggests that Jack's friends confront him as well. After reading Jack's description of a friend's reaction when he walked in the door holding a bottle of beer after driving down Laguna Canyon Road, Larson says "she was appalled. But the trouble is, she didn't say: 'Jack, you'd better do something about your drinking problem.' "

Although attitudes and laws have begun to change, Larson says that we as a society are also afraid to confront drunk driving head-on. "It's still socially acceptable to drink and drive. Still. It is becoming socially unacceptable to drive drunk, or under the influence, but for each individual, where is that fine line? For some people, it's two beers. For others, it's five. We have to decide that you can't drink and drive, period. And we haven't done that yet.

"The booze industry is painting such a beautiful picture of drinking. They spend billions of dollars advertising. Every message on TV says it's OK to drink a lot, and you're weird if you don't. This guy is a living example of a beer ad."

Cater agrees. Jack "is getting a lot of mixed messages."

"We've gotten more serious about drunk driving, but we're not that serious yet," she says. "We haven't said we're going to really hold a person accountable. As a community, we're just not ready to do that yet."

Off the Wagon but in the Car

Are you now or have you ever been a Jack? If he were your friend, would you be willing to take away his car keys if necessary to keep him off the road? Do you know people like him?

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif., 92626. Please include your phone number so that we may contact you. When the subject is sensitive, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents' last names.

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