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CHP Says Roads No Picnic Over Memorial Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura County Jail booked 24 people on suspicion of drunk driving in 24 hours, and a pregnant Ventura woman crashed her car into a tree while allegedly under the influence of alcohol as the Memorial Day weekend began.

Law enforcement officials said they expect the number of arrests and accidents to increase significantly as weekend festivities continue through Monday. They predicted that drunk drivers will be out in force.

“It’s scary to go out on that road,” said Sgt. Ken Warren, watch commander on duty at the County Jail, where most county offenders are booked and held.

The often lethal combination of alcohol and driving left a Ventura woman in critical condition at County Medical Center after her car went off California 33 near Casitas Springs and struck a tree early Saturday morning, authorities said.

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Donna Gray, 28, was three months pregnant when the accident occurred, the California Highway Patrol said. The CHP said Gray, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered seven broken ribs and a punctured left lung.

A hospital nurse late Saturday declined to say whether Gray suffered a miscarriage because of the accident.

Law enforcement officials said they have no estimate of the number of arrests or accidents expected over the weekend. But they said the increase in drunk-driving incidents is typical of holiday weekends despite nearly a decade of concentrated state efforts to curtail drunk driving.

“For everything they’re doing out there to stop drinking and driving, you still see the same old drunk drivers in here,” Warren said. “They just don’t seem to learn.”

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But authorities at the Ventura County coroner’s office and the CHP said statistics show at least some improvement.

Last year, 50% of all deaths in traffic accidents in Ventura County involved drivers who had been drinking, said Jim Wingate, deputy coroner’s investigator. This year, he said, the figure is slightly lower at 46%.

CHP Sgt. Michael Cooper said the number of accidents in the county in which alcohol is a factor has decreased 12%--to 15%--since January, when the state lowered the point at which drivers can be presumed legally drunk from a blood alcohol content of 0.10% to 0.08%.

Nevertheless, he said, the CHP has beefed up its patrol force by 25% for the holiday weekend in expectation of a surge in drunk-driving incidents.

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“We try to put all our available officers on the road for a weekend like this,” he said.

Cooper said in addition to efforts by police agencies, many area bars have become involved in the effort to keep their customers from driving after they have been drinking.

The Bombay Bar & Grill in downtown Ventura, for instance, began posting signs throughout the bar six months ago stating that it has a designated driver program.

“If a group of people has a designated driver, we give him all the non-alcohol drinks he wants free,” bartender Bill Irwin said. “We tell all our customers about it.”

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Other groups without a non-drinking member might find themselves cut off from the bar, he said.

“We frequently refuse service if they come in drunk or if they are drinking too heavily,” he said.

One Port Hueneme bar, D.W. Montgomery, has purchased radio advertisements to publicize its program for keeping intoxicated customers from driving.

The bar is one of 40 Ventura County bars involved in a program run by a nonprofit group called Drinkers Against Drunk Driving, which sends a driver and a van to pick up customers and deliver them home. The bar reimburses the DADD group for its expenses.

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“It’s well worth the money,” bar manager Chril McGinty said.

Fred Wright, who founded DADD a year ago, said the Oxnard-based group will have two drivers and vans operating over the weekend to handle an expected total of 75 to 100 calls for assistance from the member bars along with some individuals who have membership status in the group.

“We’ve been bombarded with calls already today,” Wright said.


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