Drunk Driving St. Pat's Hazard


California motorists are 21% more likely to be killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash on St. Patrick's Day than they are on other days, according to an analysis released in time for the holiday honoring Ireland's patron saint.

The study by the Auto Club of Southern California found the risk of being involved in a drunk driving accident jumps on March 17 by 21% in Los Angeles County, 19% in San Diego County and 64% in Orange County.

Despite the higher risks drivers could face Sunday, most police departments in Los Angeles and Orange counties deploy no special enforcement efforts to crack down on drunk drivers. The free taxi and shuttle rides often offered on New Year's Eve are also rare on St. Patrick's Day.

The holiday was established to honor the Catholic bishop who helped bring Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. But in America, many people complain that the holiday has primarily become an excuse for drinking. "St. Patrick's Day is a drinking holiday," said Tina Pasco, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Los Angeles. "It's all surrounding alcohol."

Many Irish Americans say they are disappointed that the true meaning of the holiday has been lost in the United States.

"It was intended to be a religious celebration," said Brother Edwin Guidera, a member of the Brothers of St. Patrick, a religious nonprofit group based in the Orange County community of Midway City. "We celebrate by attending Mass."

Yet Irish pubs and restaurants throughout Southern California are expecting to entertain record crowds this weekend.

"Every year we get bigger and bigger crowds," said Julie Keegan, manager of Keegan's, an Irish pub and restaurant in Torrance. She expects more than 900 patrons on Sunday.

Keegan said her bartenders will make an effort to call a taxi for customers who drink more than their share.

"We take the keys off the customers who have had too much," she said.

Several law enforcement officials said most of their special enforcement efforts are rolled out for other heavy-drinking holidays, like New Year's Eve, Labor Day and Memorial Day.

The Auto Club analyzed California Highway Patrol data on alcohol-related traffic injuries and deaths for 1991 through 2001. The study compared the data for the last 11 St. Patrick's Days with other days falling four weeks before and after March 17.

In Los Angeles County, an average of 45 people have been injured or killed in alcohol-related crashes on St. Patrick's Day since 1991. On non-holidays during that same period, an average of 37 people a day have been killed or injured due to drunk drivers, according to the analysis.

In San Diego, an average of 13 motorists have been killed or injured on St. Patrick's Day since 1991. The equivalent casualty figure for non-holidays was 11, according to the study.

In Orange County, an average of 14 people have been killed or injured in alcohol related accidents on St. Patrick's Day, compared with the nine killed or injured on more typical driving days, according to the Auto Club.

In general, drunk driving accidents have been on the decline for years. Experts give part of the credit to increased law enforcement efforts and to greater outreach programs by groups like MADD.

But drunk driving accidents jumped for the first time in 14 years in 2000, by nearly 5% statewide. Final statistics for 2001 are not yet available.

"When we look at these St. Patrick's Day crash statistics--along with the fact that annual alcohol-related crashes have recently risen for the first time in 14 years--we see a real cause for concern about this weekend," said Steven Bloch, the Auto Club's senior researcher.

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