Driving through San Diego or San Jose? You're likely to see some intrepid enforcement of drunk-driving laws.
According to Insurance.com data, among the top 20 most populous cities in the United States, San Diego has the largest percentage of drivers with alcohol-related driving convictions. San Jose comes in at No. 2, followed by Charlotte, N.C., at No. 3. (See rankings at right.)
What pushes one city to the top over another? A city's record for drunk driving convictions could have many reasons:
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, Calif. The child was struck so hard that she flew out of her shoes. 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 outraged mother, Candy, worked to get justice for her daughter, she also convinced others around the country to address the problem.
A brief history of drunk driving
Between 1982, when state and local governments started tracking drunk-driving arrests, and the mid-1990s, the percentage of people killed by drunk drivers plummeted. And it's stayed down, says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit research and communications group funded by major auto insurers.
Lightner founded MADD in 1980. Groups immediately sprang up around the country and three big changes took place:
San Diego seeks money for DUI enforcement
San Diego most likely tops the list because its police departments are aggressive in making DUI arrests, and officers there arrest lots of drunk drivers, 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."
San Jose goes overboard?
"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.
In fact, the city's zeal has created a new problem, says 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. "We asked [the city], 'Is it too aggressive?'" Kniss says.
New technology may one day help cities prevent repeat offenders: Already, 14 states 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.
Car insurance troubles
In terms of car insurance rates, a DUI conviction is one of the most expensive mistakes you can make. Drunk driving offenders are often required by their state to get an SR-22 form from their auto insurance companies, which proves you do carry car insurance. When your auto insurer discovers your DUI conviction, you will, at the least, see a large increase in your car insurance rates. Or your policy could be cancelled or nonrenewed. If you aren't sure how many drinks will push you over the legal limit use this DUI calculator to find out.
Insurance.com based its list on the top 20 cities by population, according to the Census Bureau. (No DUI data was available for Boston.) We then looked at people in those cities who requested car insurance quotes at Insurance.com, and calculated the percentage of people in each city who reported having at least one alcohol-related violation.
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