What pushes one city to the top over another? A city’s record for drunk driving convictions could have many reasons: more drinkers and partiers in general, less public transportation, so more bar-hoppers are driving home and better enforcement of DUI laws, so more convictions.
California has long been the epicenter for drunk driving, and the movement to stop it: In 1980, a drunk driver hit and killed 13-year-old Cari Lightner as she was walking to a school carnival in suburban Fair Oaks, CA. She landed 125 feet from the scene of the accident. The driver, who already had four drunk-driving convictions, escaped in his car. But his wife later turned him over to the police when she grew suspicious of his efforts to hide their badly damaged vehicle, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). As Cari Lightner’s mother, Candy, worked to get justice for her daughter, she also convinced others around the country to address the problem.
San Diego most likely tops the list because its police departments are aggressive in making DUI arrests, says Mark McCullough, a San Diego police department spokesperson specializing in DUI issues.
A sergeant and five specialized officers in San Diego spend 40 hours a week just stopping and arresting DUI offenders. In addition, McCollough writes applications for grants to fund around 20 sobriety checkpoints a year, plus special “saturation patrols”: Trained officers watch traffic for tell-tale drivers’ errors — not just obvious signs like weaving, but subtler indications like stopping too long at an intersection. “The arrests are directly proportionate to the amount of grant money we get,” he says. “It’s a sad state of affairs but it’s true.”
“We do have a high incidence of DUIs,” reports Officer Jose Garcia, San Jose Police Department spokesperson. “That’s not to say that smaller departments don’t have it, but I don’t think they have the resources to detect it.”
San Jose’s downtown entertainment district is a magnet for partiers. The clubs, restaurants, theaters and a big sports arena draw from rural communities to the south, surrounding suburbs and San Francisco, 45 miles north.
The city’s drunk-driving problem is probably at least partly due to its concentration of schools. Young people are the most likely to drive drunk, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. San Jose State University is downtown and Santa Clara University is nearby, as are dozens of other technical schools and colleges.
While San Jose’s No. 2 rank reflects problems, it also shows leadership. The city is extremely aggressive in getting state and federal funds to help train police officers to detect drunk drivers, run sobriety checkpoints and deploy a mobile DUI “command center” to catch and process DUI suspects. Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss.
The county, straining from the cost of jailing all the drunk drivers, recently asked San Jose to make sure its police weren’t going overboard.
Fourteen states already require “ignition interlocks” (on-board breathalyzers) for anyone convicted of drunk driving. Other states allow convicted drivers to have their licenses reinstated if they install the devices. A driver must blow into the breathalyzer before starting the car, and any sign of alcohol prevents the engine from starting.