Women and alcohol: More arrested in LA and California, though reasons are unclear

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This is the first of two KPCC stories looking into the issue of women and drinking. Part two appears on Tuesday.

Rosemary Earl drives by a gritty parking lot on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles every day on her way to work. In the lot is a mural depicting a pair of hands raising two red roses toward a dove that seems to be flying into heaven.

It serves a reminder for Earl of the time she sat on a jury that convicted a 38-year old woman of second-degree murder for driving drunk. Jurors found she fled the police and crashed into a taco truck, killing two women.  

“I put someone [in] jail, and it impacts me,” Earl said. “She took two lives that destroyed a lot of other people's lives.”

A KPCC analysis of 20 years of California Department of Motor Vehicles data found a significant increase in the number of women being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in California. The same is true in the state's largest county, Los Angeles County. Other neighboring counties in Southern California also report an increase in DUI arrests of women.

The DMV reports that women made up about 24 percent of DUI arrest statewide in 2011, the last year statistics are available. That's an increase over the 11 percent of DUI in 1989.

"They were somewhat stable in the 1980s, and then began to go up and just accelerated, particularly from 1999 to 2011,” said Steven Bloch, senior research associate with the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Young women largely drove the increase in statewide DUI arrests during that time period. The same is true in Southern California: In Los Angeles County, arrests of women ages 21 to 30 years old jumped by about 134 percent from 1999 to 2011.

Another group that stood out during the same period was women over the age of 50:

  • Arrests of women age 51 to 60 years old rose by 81 percent.
  • Arrests of female drivers age 61 to 70 climbed by 67 percent. 
  • Women older than 70 saw a 76 percent increase in DUI arrests.

In contrast, overall DUI arrests for male drivers in L.A. County fell from 1999 to 2011. The only age group among men to see an increase were those between the age of 51 to 70 years old.

Erin Holmes with the Canada-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation said the group found similar results in a survey of women arrested for driving under the influence in California, Michigan, Missouri and New York.

“We don’t know if more women are drinking and driving,” Holmes said. “All we do know is that more women are being arrested.”

Cops are better trained to find impaired drivers

Research into the reasons why more women are being arrested is minimal. Researchers have yet to come up with a definitive reason to explain the increase. One explanation is that law enforcement has made it a priority to get impaired drivers off the roads.

In California, DUI arrests decreased overall by 8 percent in 2011, following a 6 percent decrease in the two years prior. Starting in 2008, the state began a serious crackdown on drunk driving. Officials launched a public awareness campaign, which was accompanied by a surge of DUI checkpoints and patrols.

Sgt. Daniel Dail, who has worked DUI checkpoints with the Traffic Service Detail at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department since 2009, said: “What I’ve seen is our deputies and our officers throughout the city are getting better trained.”  

Dail said law enforcement has been particularly focused on training officers on how to detect drugged-driving; that is, driving under the influence of marijuana, narcotics or prescription drugs. He also has seen more women arrested at DUI checkpoints, but he doesn’t think they are drunk. 

“A lot of them do take prescription medication or mix them,” Dail said. “Prescription medication and alcohol, or medicinal marijuana, or something like that.”

More than three-quarters of women arrested for DUI told researchers they mixed prescription drugs with alcohol, according to a survey by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation published last year.

"I think it's no secret that half of America is on some kind of anti-depressant and happy pill,” said Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Sara Azari. She specializes in representing defendants charged with serious, felony DUIs.

Azari recently represented a woman convicted of vehicular manslaughter who was on a mix of anti-anxiety pills. A jury found she killed a tow-truck driver who was on the side of Pacific Coast Highway. The lawyer said many people do not understand that a prescription pill can lead to a DUI arrest.

“It says you’re not supposed to drive when you’re taking it. No driving towards the time of the ingestion,” Azari said. “And people just get behind the wheel and go about [their] lives.”

Three profiles of a female DUI driver

Other possible reasons for the increase in DUI arrests among women: More women in the workforce means more women are driving than in previous years. There’s also a generation of young women who are delaying marriage and children for a professional career.

Bree Brescianai, 28, isn’t married, doesn’t have children and works full time. She and a female co-worker sipped wine and beer at a restaurant during happy hour on a recent Tuesday evening in Los Angeles.

“More women are becoming independent. We don’t have counterparts. We’re single,” Brescianai said. “And we have the monetary means to buy our own cars – have our own lives.”

Holmes said the Traffic Injury Research Foundation research survey revealed three distinct profiles of women arrested for driving under the influence:

  • The young woman who drinks to socialize.
  • The recently married woman with children.
  • The "empty-nester" or woman in the midst of a major life stressor that could be caused by divorce, death or some other factor.

Sam is a 47-year-old woman from Santa Monica with four DUI arrests. KPCC agreed to use only her first name because she feared discussing her arrests could damage her career.  

Her first three DUI arrests occurred in 2007 when the mother of two teenagers and restaurant owner discovered her husband was using drugs and their family finances were ruined.

“I couldn’t help my husband, couldn’t keep our business together,” she said. “We ended up losing our house and our business. We had to file bankruptcy.”

She added: “I couldn’t control all of those things that I had always been in control of.”

The consequences for her first three DUIs weren’t stiff, Sam said. She had her license suspended for a few months each time, and she attended a couple of court-ordered DUI and Alcoholics Anonymous classes.

She pulled through her husband’s death (he died from a drug overdose) and the family’s bankruptcy. Life seemed to be back on track. But four years later, Sam said she got complacent.

“I thought I was fine to drive,” she said.

Cruising down a curvy Malibu mountain road after work, Sam swerved out over the yellow lane into oncoming traffic. Then she did it again. Someone called the police and reported her as a suspected drunk driver.

“I went to jail and, … I did not come home for eight months,” she said.

Sam said she hasn’t had a drink since her last DUI arrest in 2011. She said the consequences of going to jail and being kept away from her children set her straight.

“I put my kids through more than any kid should ever have to go through,” Sam said.

Addressing why women drink and drive 

Erica, 37, earned her second DUI arrest last year. KPCC agreed to only use her first name because she also feared that talking about her arrests could damage her career.

She had been drinking at a bar and tried to drive home around 10 p.m. Her car got a flat tire, and she pulled off the side of the highway. Alone at night with a dead cell phone battery, she decided to lock the car doors and sleep inside until daybreak.

Around 2:30 a.m., a police officer knocked on her car window to find out what was going on. He asked if she’d been drinking, and she answered yes.

“I didn’t think it would be incriminating,” Erica said.

She thought enough time had passed since she last drank at the bar.

“I wasn’t driving my vehicle, but it didn’t help,” Erica said.

She was arrested. Now she has an ignition-lock Breathalyzer in her car. It's a device that will not allow the engine to start unless her breath registers at a 0.00 blood alcohol content level: She cannot start the car if she's had an alcoholic drink.

“The law doesn’t allow any amount of alcohol in your system,” she said. “You can still get a DUI being under the legal limit” of 0.08 BAC.

For a lot of women, DUI arrests are the result of a poor understanding of the law or not understanding how alcohol affects the body. The state's DUI law falls under the California Vehicle Code Section 23152. Some key parts of the law include:

(a) It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle.

(b) It is unlawful for a person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.

(e) It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.

(f) It is unlawful for a person who is under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug to drive a vehicle.

Experts studying the issue of women and DUI say there may be a need for gender-specific treatment programs and more support for women trying to get help.

When arrested for a DUI, the driver usually has his or her license suspended for 30 days. There is no driving allowed during that time.

Restricted driving privileges are sometimes granted after the hard suspension. It allows someone to drive to and from work and to and from a court-ordered DUI treatment program. But that can be challenging for some women, who represent the vast majority of single-parent households.

Criminal defense attorney Sara Azari said that in a city like Los Angeles with unreliable public transportation, a single-mother with a DUI arrest can have a tough time playing dual roles as caregiver and breadwinner.

“What happens if she has to take the sick kid to the doctor?" Azari said. "That doesn’t fall within the ambit of the allowed driving.”

Researchers also recommend that if more women are being arrested for DUI, then DUI treatment programs should be changed to address the reasons why women drink and drive.

Jayne Wise runs The High Gains DUI program in Santa Monica and said a gender-specific group could help women talk more openly and comfortably about root problems – such as domestic violence or sexual abuse – that can lead to drinking and driving.

But, so far, the arrest numbers don't justify the costs. Although the numbers are falling, men still make up the majority of DUI arrests. Even Wise admits most of the people attending her program are men.

"I would love to be able to get to the individual issues that get triggered up from this,” Wise said. “Different levels of abuse, eating disorders, the co-occurring disorders – bipolar, mental health – that kind of plays into it.”

Wise does do some one-on-one counseling of women whom she finds may have severe issues that led to the DUI. But there is one thing she makes sure every person who comes through her doors understands:

“Don’t drive to the drink,” Wise warns. “Move to the drink, but don’t start with you driving the car. This way you don’t have the option of driving yourself home after a couple of drinks.”

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