Capitol Offenses

Oropeza stirring drunk driving rules
by Daniel Blackburn
Published February 21, 2008

Every time during the past quarter-century that I have gotten behind the wheel of my car after quaffing a beer or two, I think back on the brief elevator ride that helped to permanently alter Californians’ drinking and driving habits.

It was a Veteran’s Day holiday, and the state capitol building was devoid of its usual beehive activity, its halls wandered only by scattered family groups and tourists. I was working for the Senate President pro Tempore at the time, and was going to the office just because I had nothing better to do.

A woman shared my elevator, and before we had reached my fourth floor destination, she introduced herself and engaged me in conversation. As we stood in a hallway, she told me about her 13-year-old daughter who had been killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver earlier in the year. The driver, when apprehended, was found to have dozens of prior arrests for driving under the influence. When the grieving mom discovered this disturbing fact, her sorrow quickly burned into an intense anger, and she was determined to change things.
And, oh, did she.

The woman was having a lot of trouble getting then-Governor Jerry Brown to meet with her, and she said she couldn’t understand his reticence. She had hoped the governor would have a press conference with her to emphasize the problem with drunk drivers.

Holidays are very slow news days. After I checked with Sen. Jim Mills, then boss of the Senate, we reserved the governor’s press conference room for the following day. I helped her draft a press release and dropped it into the media delivery system. In an hour, every reporter at the capitol had penciled in the press conference, and the ensuing turnout, complete with television cameras and wire reporters, was huge.

When the woman spoke, the reporters listened. Candy Lightner told a compelling story that was widely disseminated, and within days she had major corporate sponsorship and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) was born. The group since has changed “Drivers” to “Driving” and dumped Lightner from their roster, but it continues today as a powerful lobby.

Now, South Bay Sen. Jenny Oropeza has introduced a bill to strengthen, again, California’s drunk-driving law. This measure would amend current law to reduce the threshold for “excessive” drunk driving for first-time offenders from .20 to .15 blood alcohol content. Law calls on judges to consider enhanced sentences for accused excessive drunk drivers. Those people also must have an ignition locking device installed in their vehicles which senses alcohol use.

I’m good with stronger laws against drunk driving. But it seems as though we are doing this all backwards. In many European nations, there is zero-tolerance for drinking and driving. If this was the law in California, the battle against killer drunks might be winnable. As it is, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports progress here, progress there. But innocents still die because of irresponsible, alcohol-sodden drivers.

Somehow, it seems a little silly to argue about variance in the degree of drunkenness.
Daniel Blackburn can be reached at ER