The DUI Project an in-depth look at driving under the influence in santa clarita

Between 2007 and 2015, the CHP's Newhall office responded to 1,773 DUI-related crashes. Of those collisions, 736 resulted in injures and 33 were fatal.
From 2007 to Oct. 30, 2016, the Sheriff's Department responded to 1,217 DUI-related crashes in the city of Santa Clarita. Of those collisions, 563 resulted in injuries and 22 were fatal.

How many drinks does it take to get a DUI?

By Austin Dave, Signal Multimedia Journalist

A sense of awkwardness overwhelmed the room as five people trickled into a Signal conference room and took seats.

Three California Highway Patrol officers were already inside, awaiting the arrival of five people handpicked to participate in a demonstration.

One uniformed officer placed two nondescript black sealed containers on the oak table.

The man’s movements squashed a notable amount of chatter as five pairs of eyes grew, each hoping to catch a momentary glimpse of the containers’ contents.

About a foot of distance isolated the black boxes from a jug of vodka, several bottles of wine and an assortment of beer bottles.

Breath analysis devices sit on a table during a web lab at the Signal office. Photo: Austin Dave/Signal

Two noisy clicks of a latch later, the lid to the ominous container was opened and a small slate-colored device was brought out.

Plastic mouthpieces were handed out and the device, determined to be a portable alcohol detection tool commonly known as a “breathalyzer,” was thrust toward the face of Patrick Dietz.

“You’re going to breathe and blow air into your mouthpiece as hard as you can,” said CHP Officer Josh Greengard.

The two locked eyes for a moment, Dietz broke away to inhale and lock lips with the device.

“I’m super nervous,” he said. The man blew into the breathalyzer and shrill beep sounded.

Dietz ceased breathing. After a few moments, the device’s LED display read three zeros.

It was determined Dietz and the other four candidates had not consumed alcohol before the demonstration.

The methodology

The five had assembled on a Monday morning for the CHP’s DUI wet lab hosted by The Signal, where participants are dosed with alcohol and put through a series state standardized sobriety tests to demonstrate roadworthiness.

At a time of the year where driving under the influence peaks, the goal was to demonstrate a disconnection between the the average consumer of alcohol and what the state’s legal drinking limit entails. California’s maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC, is .08 percent.

A driver at or in excess of that limit is considered intoxicated and can be arrested for driving under the influence. But, Greengard added, drivers registering as near the state limit can still be detained and taken to jail if they fail to demonstrate safe driving practices.

For the activity, each of the five represent a wide variety of subjects who consume alcohol, limited to beer, wine and liquor.

Five SCV community members cheers together at the Signal's offices on Dec. 12, as CHP officers Brian Byrod, Chris Proper and Josh Greengard supervise the group's consumption for the Signal's wet test. Katharine Lotze/Signal

The participants

Dietz, a personal trainer and casual drinker of all three beverages, was joined by Wolf Creek Brewery and Restaurant owner Laina Mcferren, real estate agent Michael Lebecki and nurses Katelyn Tatar and Kristine Alfaro.

The frequency of consumption between the five participants contrasted between socially drinking once a week to more than four times a week.

At 10:28 a.m., the test began with one serving of alcohol, which according to Greengard, is commonly misconstrued and more often overestimated.

A standard drink is about 12 ounces of beer, eight to nine ounces of malt liquor, five ounces of table wine and a 1.5 ounce shot of distilled spirits. Any amount over that is considered to be more than a single serving. Participants were held to this guideline.

CHP officer Josh Greengard administers a breathulizer test to Katelyn Tater during the Signal's wet test on Dec. 12. Photo: Katharine Lotze/Signal

The test

Each drink was consumed in fifteen minutes and an additional quarter-hour was set aside before testing could be conducted on the half-hour.

At 11 a.m., the breathalyzer devices reappeared and once again, each subject inhaled and exhaled into their plastic mouthpieces.

After a single shot of vodka, Lebecki registered at 0.004 percent blood-alcohol concentration. Mcfarren recorded consuming one glass of wine and blew a 0.025 percent.

The test was repeated on the half-hour for each. The results for each person varied greatly.

The first to clear the legal limit was Alfaro, the only participant to not eat breakfast. After two six-ounce servings of wine, the 24-year-old cleared the 0.08 percent threshold at 11:30 a.m. with a B.A.C. of 0.114 – more than double the result of the previous test.

“I was surprised how little it takes to become intoxicated,” she said.

“Few people serve the proper serving, so in reality you are most likely not sober enough to drive after one cocktail at happy hour.”

Tatar was second to reach the mark, hitting 0.09 percent at noon; Mcfarren at 12:30 p.m. after three and a half glasses of wine. Dietz was last to clear after an hour without alcohol.

But the four felt intoxicated well before the machines registered at 0.08 percent.

Patrick Dietz pours a shot from a handle of vodka during the Signal's wet test on Dec. 12. Katharine Lotze/Signal

Stark realizations

Lebecki, who ate breakfast the shortly before the demonstration, consumed seven shots of vodka and topped out at 0.072 percent.

During the demonstration, he never cleared legal the limit and remarked after one drink, he didn’t feel safe to operate a vehicle.

“I was shocked to see how much everyone could drink and how their behavior changed and they were still under the level,” Lebecki said.

“I thought one drink was 0.8 and that’s that,” he added.

“They were having big booze-ups. I wouldn’t get into a car with any of them.”

Dietz was cut off at 12 p.m. when he registered at 0.06 percent, and instructed to sober up for an hour – a tactic many people assume is safe to practice, the officers confirmed.

At 12:45 p.m., his blood-alcohol concentration rose to 0.082. Though he hadn’t consumed any more beer or vodka, his levels rose and he was legally declared intoxicated.

That facet was the most shocking for the lean muscle-builder.

“Just because you stop, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear and you’re going to sober up,” Officer Brian Byrod said.

“You stopped and you’re like ‘Oh dude, I’m good here I’m going to drive home.’ You can still be over the legal limit later and it takes time.”

And contrary to popular belief, if a motorist registers lower than the legal limit of 0.08 percent and law enforcement can prove they are too drunk to drive, they can haul them off to jail and charge them with driving under the influence.

Lessons learned

“It’s interesting to see the effect of alcohol is more than just your physical reaction and what you think you’re okay with,” Mcfarren said.

The Santa Clarita woman, who owns Wolf Creek Brewery and Restaurant, said she was surprised her blood alcohol level was much higher than initially anticipated.

“When you see what your BA is, it’s generally higher than you think it is.

The brewer said she plans to ensure her patrons know drinking and driving is never an option.

“If you want to go and have a few drinks, have a plan to pick you up and get home safely,” she said.

Though none of the participants admitted to ever driving under the influence, the five each agreed post-demonstration they were more likely to use a driving service such as Uber or Lyft when socially drinking.

“If you’re affected in the least, I don’t think you should drive,” Lebecki said.

“And don’t do the coffee thing, all you are is a wide-awake drunk.”

The five participants were all given a lift courtesy of The Signal and CHP to their next destinations.

Photos: KATHARINE LOTZE/Signal
A bottle of vodka rests behind the steering wheel of an SUV. Photo: Dan Watson/Signal

The process: When reality sets in

By Austin Dave, Signal Staff Writer

Bump, bump, bump, bump.

You’re finding it increasingly difficult to stay between the bright, white reflective lane markers.

At this point, the certainty of being in the correct lane has disappeared along with a clear visual of the slick roadway.

The spinning tires groan from exchanging blows with the concrete curb.

A pair of low beams in your rearview mirror appear to flash and you’re blinded by a deluge of red, white and blue strobe lights.

Loud and booming, a voice, somewhat muddled by impaired comprehension, gives instruction over a loudspeaker.

“Pull to the side at your earliest convenience,” the female voice commands.

Hand over hand, the steering wheel turns clockwise; the sound of gravel under the tires wrestles with the thumping pace of your heartbeat.

The tap of a flashlight rapping on the window startles you. The window rolls down. A brief exchange of information ensues.

The woman, a sheriff’s deputy, makes note of your bloodshot eyes and slight scent of alcohol.

“Sir, follow my finger,” the sheriff’s deputy says.

“Slowly reach your hand out the window and open the door,” the woman says.

You follow the instructions, exit the vehicle and proceed to the sidewalk.

The deputy closely observes your movements. You manage to articulate a couple of words, handicapped by a dizzying sensation.

“I only had a few drinks ma’am.”

The admission did little to change the situation. The deputy had already noticed typical hallmarks of intoxication.

She asks you to recite the alphabet from A and to stop at a letter other than Z.

Your attention is divided between the task at hand and the deputy’s unbroken gaze.

She asks you to walk a straight path – you fail. A slate-colored device is thrusted toward your lips.

“Blow into this as hard as you can,” the woman with a gold nameplate bearing the name “Meyers” says.

Taking in a heave of air, you expel into the plastic gray mouthpiece.

The machine beeps and Meyers lets out a sigh.

“Point zero, nine, five,” she reads aloud. Her partner reaches behind his back and unlatches a pair of glossy gray handcuffs.

Because your blood-alcohol concentration was over the California’s legal limit of 0.08 percent, you’re declared intoxicated.

The pitter-patter of raindrops begins to fall, the stormy water mixing with tears, washing away any evidence of remorse from your face.

You’re read your rights and corralled into the back of a patrol vehicle where the hintings of a stark reality overtake dulled consciousness.

Your car is put on the flatbed tow truck and impounded. The cost: $134 for the tow and $35 for each day it sits in the lot.

Sarah Meyers and her partner Curtis Buchanan transport you to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station where you’re digitally fingerprinted and housed, pending a release on citation.

You hang onto the green cage as the jailers monitor you from afar. On average, a person sobers at a rate of 0.2 percent per hour. The jailers anticipate releasing you after about four hours.

If you had hit and killed someone, the chance of being released would diminish.

You’re handed a citation for a pending court date to be filed with the county district attorney’s office.

Your future becomes an uncertainty. If the judge orders you to jail, it can be a much as six months or, because it’s your first offense, as little as informal probation for three to five years.

Fines can exceed $1,000. Your driver's license can be suspended for 30 days or up to 12 months. If you were speeding more than 30 miles per hour over the posted speed limit at the time you were pulled over, or had children in the car, or caused damage -- expect the penalties to climb.

At this point, with a DUI conviction, your car insurance skyrockets, or at worst, is suspended.

In Los Angeles County, it’s mandatory to install an ignition interlock device, which requires you to blow into it to start the car. Your blood-alcohol concentration cannot register above zero percent if you plan to drive.

And if you hit and cause great bodily injury to or kill someone, you can assume you’ll trade in your shirt and tie for an orange jumpsuit.

Forever young

In this photo: Five sunflowers lay at the base of the memorial to Zachary Russel Legreid at the Youth Grove at Central Park ahead of the annual Walk of Remembrance on Wednesday, honoring Santa Clarita residents age 24 or under who died in car-related accidents.

KATHARINE LOTZE/Signal

A place of remembrance

By Christina Cox, Signal Staff Writer

At the edge of Santa Clarita’s Central Park sits a somber, circular collection of more than 100 concrete tree stumps representing the youth whose lives were cut short from incidents on the road.

Their names and ages are etched in plaques atop pillars which surround a central monument, encouraging the community to “Know More” so “No More” young lives will be lost in traffic-related accidents.

Acting as both a place of remembrance and a location for reflection, the Youth Grove provides a centralized site for the community to reflect on the implications of choices made behind the wheel.

Candles atop tree stumps representing the lives cut short at the Youth Grove at Central Park ahead of the annual Walk of Remembrance on Wednesday, honoring Santa Clarita residents age 24 or under who died in car-related accidents. KATHARINE LOTZE/Signal.

The beginning

In 2003, Saugus High School student Kathi Knight and her mother, Debbie Knight, wrote a letter to former Councilmember Frank Ferry about the creation of a place like the Youth Grove, according to Jennifer Thompson, Santa Clarita’s arts and schools administrator.

“She had the idea of a memorial because she had three friends on her street that passed away from driving incidents,” Thompson said.

Out of the letter came a subcommittee from the Blue Ribbon Task Force that began a grassroots effort to fundraise, design and install the Youth Grove.

Alice Renolds, who lost her sons Danny, 15, and Tim, 17, Feb. 17, 2000 in a fatal traffic collision, was part of the Blue Ribbon Task Force subcommittee to develop the Youth Grove.

“We started from the ground up trying to create our visual concept,” Renolds said. “We had to work with finding a space to build it and settled with the park.”

Renolds and her team spent several years fundraising and taking donations for the space. The final donations for landscaping, lighting, concrete and other materials came from Charlie Rasmussen of C.A. Rasmussen Inc. and his cohorts of three to four businesses, according to Thompson.

Hundreds join the Walk of Remembrance as they head for the City of Santa Clarita Youth Grove at Central Park for the Evening of Remembrance event in Saugus on Wednesday. DAN WATSON/Signal

Breaking ground

The committee broke ground on the Youth Grove Nov. 18, 2005 and opened it to the public in 2006.

“I think we’re really proud of what we ended up with,” Renolds said. “When we’re out there people will walk by and say ‘oh wow this is really impactful and meaningful’ and ‘this is a good idea’ and we ‘need this.’”

Now—10 years later—the Youth Grove includes the names of 102 Santa Clarita youth, 24 years old and younger, who have died in traffic related incidents. Nine names were added in just the last year, according to city records.

Diane Briones, right, asks attendees to light their glow sticks for the 102 young people who have been killed in traffic collisions at the City of Santa Clarita Youth Grove at Central Park during the Evening of Remembrance event in Saugus on Wednesday. DAN WATSON/Signal

Meaning

For parents like Renolds and her husband Tom, the Youth Grove is a place to remember their children and their lives.

“It means a lot to a lot of the parents that have children who are remembered there because a lot of parents have had their children cremated,” Renolds said. “The pain of losing a child never goes away. I think of my sons every minute of every day.”

Parents and friends also have a chance to honor those lost at the annual “Evening of Remembrance” held each year in September. During this night, the names and photos of youth killed in traffic incidents are read aloud as their photos roll across screens.

“That night is important,” Renolds said. “It’s hard to see their names and faces, but it’s meaningful. For us, it’s been 16 years since we’ve lost our sons and you don’t hear their names as much so it’s very meaningful.”

Faces of some of the 102 young people killed in traffic collisions smile down from banners on display at the City of Santa Clarita Youth Grove at Central Park during the Evening of Remembrance event in Saugus on Wednesday. DAN WATSON/Signal

Going forward

The grove is also used as a tool to educate youth about the leading cause of death for teens in the United States: motor vehicle crashes.

“The kids need to know that they’re not invincible… it can happen to them too,” Renolds said. “When my son left that night I said ‘I love you and be careful’ and he said ‘I’m always careful,’ but he didn’t come home.”

Renolds and others involved in the Blue Ribbon Task Force want individuals to be aware of every decision they make behind the wheel and to avoid distracted driving and driving under the influence.

“They need to understand that, behind the wheel, every decision they make can affect not only them, but everyone else around them,” Renolds said. “They have to be aware of everything going on and make the right decision.”

CHP officers detain a man in connection with a fatal DUI-related crash in Stevenson Ranch. Photo: Rick McClure/For The Signal

Options exist. Here's a few.

Santa Clarita Valley Safe Rides - 661-259-6330

Designated Drivers of Santa Clarita - 661-313-8336

Uber - Visit the website

Lyft - Visit the website

The DUI Project is a partnership with The Signal, the Newhall California Highway Patrol Office, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station and you.

2016. Signal Multimedia

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