California ramps up efforts to curtail drunk driving

Times Staff Writer

Anti-drunk driving devices in cars may still be a decade away. But the net is expected to continue to tighten around drunk drivers, says Chris Murphy, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety.

"At the state level, we are doing more than ever," he says. "We're not resting until this issue is reversed, until these numbers turn around. We are funding new and exciting programs designed to save lives."

Riverside County has launched two pilot studies, funded by Murphy's office, to deter drunk drivers with monitoring devices, says Ed Vasquez, chief deputy probation officer for field services with the Riverside County Probation Department. One is an alcohol-sensing ankle monitor, which is being tried on about six offenders as a condition of probation. The study will test whether the device allows officials to monitor the whereabouts of offenders and deters offenders from entering bars.

Another program is using global positioning system technology in a device that can be strapped to the ankle or wrist. If the offender is being monitored in real time, law enforcement agents could tell, for example, if he or she was entering a bar -- usually forbidden in the terms of probation. Information is also recorded, and a review of the data could tell if the offender was entering a bar or violating any other terms of probation.

The state Office of Traffic Safety also launched a program this year to encourage people to call 911 when they spot someone driving erratically and provide information on the description of the vehicle, its location and, if possible, a license plate number. (Motorists should not chase or follow the erratic driver.)

The program will be heavily promoted next year, with information posted on changeable message signs on freeways. Caltrans recently installed signs about the program at 66 rest stops throughout the state.

The office has also allocated $4 million in funds in 2007 to supplement sobriety checkpoints on highways and local roadways. These are considered a highly successful deterrent, Murphy says.

The city of Fresno has attracted nationwide attention for its use of such checkpoints and saturation patrols in which police patrol the streets looking for impaired drivers. The city conducts more crackdowns than any city in the nation and has become a model for other law enforcement agencies.

Other efforts underway include programs to assist in the prosecution of drunk drivers, monitor the activities of repeat offenders and offer alcoholism rehabilitation to first-time offenders in lieu of jail time.

Finally, a state law set to take effect on Jan. 1 will make it a criminal offense for anyone younger than 21 to operate a vehicle with a blood-alcohol concentration of .01% or above -- a so-called "zero tolerance" approach to underage drinking and driving.

"I'm hoping to see an impact in the next couple of years," says Murphy of these efforts. "The numbers are unacceptable to all of us."

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