A 28-year-old Oceanside man got two surprises when a California Highway Patrol officer pulled him over on a speeding charge one Friday night in Orange County.
Although he felt unimpaired, he had downed enough beer after work that a Breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol level to register .08%, the new legal limit.
Not only was he arrested, but he was stripped of his driver’s license, a second result of the state’s new and tougher drunk driving laws.
This year has seen some of the most significant changes in California drunk driving laws in a decade. Only three other states--Utah, Maine and Oregon--have legal blood alcohol limits as low as California.
As a result, more drivers have been arrested on state highways than ever before, and drunk driving convictions are approaching an all-time high. The statistics are particularly striking in the seven-county Southern California region.
In the wake of the new .08% legal limit, 16% more drivers have been arrested for drunk driving on the state’s highways and 10% more drivers were convicted of the crime during the first ten months of this year than during the same period in 1989.
To their delight, law enforcement officers say the new law--which lowers the legal limit from .10% to .08%--is allowing them to snare a new kind of drunk driver. The ones, in the Oceanside man’s words, who “are just a little bit drunk.” They are drivers who were borderline under the old legal limit but clearly can be prosecuted now, officials say.
(For an average 150 pound man, the new law means drinking two beers instead of three an hour before getting behind the wheel. Although the average level of intoxication in California is .17%, almost 10%, or 11,000, drivers arrested statewide so far this year by the California Highway Patrol had a level of .10% or less.)
The new law also allows police to confiscate a drunk driver’s license on the spot--a provision that tends to leave an indelible mark on the memories of drunk drivers, officials say.
But the tougher laws have also had some unintended consequences: Many more drivers are choosing to fight the charges in court, believing they are unimpaired at the .08% limit--a claim that medical authorities dispute.
“It’s understandable that a driver feels that way, but from a scientist’s point of view, a driver is impaired at .08%,” said Dr. Lonnie Bristow, a physician and trustee with the American Medical Assn., which prefers a .05% legal limit.
The controversy over the lower limit also has been responsible for a rise of as much as 20% in jury trials in some areas, such as Orange County.
At the lower blood alcohol levels drivers don’t “feel they were under the influence. Their memory of the event is pretty good and they feel they didn’t do it,” said Judge John Ouderkirk of the Los Angeles Traffic Court. “At the higher range, they don’t remember anything, and in their heart, they know they were under the influence.”
Officials in San Diego, who also report an increase in drunk driving trials, say that although they are prosecuting 15% more cases this year, the low-level cases are more difficult to pursue.
In these cases, drivers can more readily perform the field sobriety tests--such as walking a straight line--and officers depend more heavily on chemical tests to show intoxication. During trials, the chemical tests draw fire as lawyers attempt to downplay their reliability. Experts say the tests can deviate by .01.
“Skillful defense attorneys can--through clever arguments--persuade an earnest jury that there is a .02 deviation in the breath test. Some juries buy that,” said Gretchen North, head deputy city attorney in San Diego. “But obviously we wouldn’t be picking up the .08s if we weren’t winning them.”
And DMV records show that the increase in arrests has led to more drunk driving convictions in the Southland. “The laws are doing what was intended--closing the loopholes and increasing arrests and convictions,” said Paul Snodgrass, the driving-under-the-influence coordinator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s San Francisco regional office.
“Increased conviction is increased deterrent as far as we are concerned--the .08 law means less people will drive drunk,” said Carolee Newman, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “The law is outstanding.”
Officer Gil Payne, a 20-year veteran assigned to the California Highway Patrol in San Juan Capistrano, says he sees a difference on the roads. Payne describes himself as a “Deuce Buster,” or an officer who specializes in nabbing drunk drivers. For the last 16 years, Payne has worked a nine-hour shift that starts at 7:30 p.m.--considered prime time for drinking drivers.
“We have come a long way from 10 years ago,” Payne said. “People are finding out that the risk just isn’t worth it. The penalties are getting tougher and tougher.”
On a recent Friday night, Payne and his partner, Leon LaSage, patrolled the San Juan Capistrano highways and roadways, driving 162 miles. By the end of their shift, they had doled out several speeding tickets and made two drunk driving arrests.
One man, a 20-year-old from Laguna Niguel, had zoomed around a street corner, tires squealing. After being pulled over, he scored a low but still illegal blood alcohol level on the hand-held breath analysis device. Although readings from this device cannot be used as evidence in court, CHP officers frequently use it to double-check their own estimates of a driver’s impairment.
Handcuffed and placed in the patrol car, the man objected: “There are many more people who are more intoxicated than I am.”
Usually, the introduction of a new law heightens awareness of a problem, which, in turn, tends to boost arrests and convictions, said Cliff Helander, research manager of the DMV’s alcohol research unit.
But some courts are limited in what they can do, many experts say. Across California, a DUI case takes an average of six months to adjudicate. Many experts say that by the time an intoxicated driver is punished by the legal system, he has long since forgotten his crime.
In hopes of addressing the problem, the new prompt license suspension law went into effect in July. Traffic experts believe this sanction will probably do more to keep drunk drivers off the road than the .08% limit.
Under the license suspension law, officers can seize the licenses of those arrested on suspicion of drunk driving if their blood alcohol level is .08% or higher. They can also yank the license if the driver refuses to undergo a chemical test. In place of the license, officers provide a 45-day temporary license. Drivers have 10 days to appeal the license suspension to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Many, however, are unaware of the suspension law, so they are stunned when an officer plucks their license. Since July, 105,000 drivers statewide have had their licenses pulled when they were arrested for driving while intoxicated.
One 29-year-old San Clemente woman said the sting of a license suspension was effective. “I made a stupid mistake, and it’s the price I’ve got to pay,” said the paralegal typist. “It’s just a hassle. The whole thing made me feel like a criminal.”
With prompt license suspension, the punishment immediately follows the crime--which makes it one of the most powerful tools to help keep intoxicated drivers off the roads, said Snodgrass of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
When you take a license away, some drive anyway, but most don’t, he said. Similar license suspension laws are on the books in 28 states and the District of Columbia. One study in those states showed that prompt license suspension reduced fatal crashes by about 9%.
So far, fatal traffic accidents of all kind, not just alcohol-related ones--have declined by about 7% on California’s roads. But officials are uncertain whether to credit the new drunk driving laws for this accomplishment or the fact that more people are wearing seat belts, said Sam Haynes, a CHP spokesman.
While some lawyers have questioned whether this sanction violates a driver’s right to due process, a Supreme Court case, however, upheld the law in 1979. Others--drivers and lawyers--say the law is crippling and poses hardship in Southern California, which has little public transportation.
But many others say the double punch of yanking a license and the lower drinking limit is effective.
“If I could turn back time, I would turn back Friday night,” said the San Clemente typist. “I didn’t need to get behind the wheel and drive. That arrest made me sober up fast.”
A WIDER NET FOR DRUNK DRIVERS
Lowering the blood alcohol limit for suspected drunk drivers in California has caused an increase in the number of arrests and conviction rates statewide. ARRESTS
AREA 1990 1989 % CHANGE Southern Los Angeles 28,673 26,867 7% Inland San Bernardino, Riverside 10,818 9,319 16% counties Coastal Santa Cruz, Ventura, Monterey 11,589 9,954 16% counties Border Orange, San Diego, Imperial 21,728 19,887 9% counties STATEWIDE 131,566 113,905 16%
COUNTY 1990 1989 % CHANGE Kern 7,962 8,044 -1% Los Angeles 68,024 64,497 5% Orange 19,877 16,713 19% Riverside 10,108 7,383 37% San Bernardino 10,295 8,458 22% San Diego 16,400 14,929 10% Santa Barbara 4,674 4,058 15% STATEWIDE 252,782 229,058 10%
NOTES: Arrests are by California Highway Patrol from January through October, 1990. Figures are reported by region. Convictions are reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles during same time period and figures are preliminary. Statistics for Ventura County were incomplete.