In a Yountville home, a prayer candle on Ben Leavy’s dresser burns 24 hours a day.
Pictures of the smiling blond boy are posted on the room’s walls. Hand-made prayer flags drape the room’s periphery, with sentiments of grief inscribed on faded construction paper.
This memorial was pieced together after an intoxicated driver spun around a curve five years ago and struck the side of the car in which Leavy was a passenger. He died in a hospital days later, at the age of 12.
It’s a loss that still stings Leavy’s mother, Lori Cagwin.
Cagwin is only one of many who have seen the impact of drunk driving at its worst. Still others, including those who have momentarily or chronically slipped onto the wrong side of the law, have lost jobs and their right to drive. Law enforcement officers say driving under the influence threatens lives, costs millions of dollars and often hurts those who do not drink alcohol at all.
The costs of DUIs range from expensive to astronomical, said Shirin Vakharia, prevention coordinator for the Napa County DUI Task Force, which formed two years ago to address the issue.
The California Office of Traffic Safety found the city of Napa has the eighth highest DUI rate when compared to California cities of similar size and road and traffic conditions.
Vakharia ticked off the costs, to the driver and society at large: Prosecution. Medical care. Insurance rate increases. Law enforcement. Loss of productivity.
“The costs are significant when you start to think about range of things that it affects,” she said.
The price is not always measured in dollars.
For the family of someone who dies in a DUI crash, the emotional impact lingers for years, Vakharia said. Family members often have to close businesses. Those injured in DUI accidents rack up long-term medical costs that court-ordered restitution, paid by convicted drivers, often doesn’t cover, she said.
On June 25, 2004, Ben Leavy and his brother, Shaun, were in Tennessee for their father’s wedding. They were driving just outside of Woodbury, Tenn., on their way to Nashville when the accident occurred. Shaun Leavy remembers clearly the car spinning toward them and the aftermath of the wreck, he said. All four occupants of the vehicle, including Ben, Shaun, his father, and his father’s new wife, were injured and flown to two different hospitals.
The other driver was on anti-depressants, diet pills, cocaine and alcohol, an investigation later found. She was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. Ultimately, she was sentenced to one year in jail and 16 months probation.
She served six months and later had her probation reduced, Cagwin said.
Cagwin said she still feels her son’s loss. She also has spent tens of thousands of dollars in litigation and for counseling for her surviving son. She’s disappointed in the sentence the woman who was driving received.
“She pretty much got away with murder,” Cagwin said.
Most of all, Cagwin mourns the life her son never got to finish.
“We feel little pieces of this horror at a time,” she said.
Shaun, now 21, is still angry at the woman who killed his brother. He suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and has struggled with panic attacks ever since. For a time, he became addicted to a medication he was taking. “It’s just taken me awhile to finally get my life together,” he said.
A tragedy with many levels
Like Cagwin, Lydia Ruiz of Calistoga lost her son after a drunk driver hit him on Feb. 14 of this year. Alex Ruiz, 22, was driving from Sebastopol to his Oakland home on Highway 116 when a 18-year-old ran a red light and hit the car Ruiz was driving.
Dylan Morse was sentenced to 12 years and four months in prison, though a Sonoma County judge has ordered a hearing for this month in which he might reduce the sentence.
“There are many levels to this tragedy,” Lydia Ruiz said. “There’re many areas where I think this whole night could have been prevented.”
Ruiz isn’t angry at the driver, but she hopes that he learns something. “I have a lot of compassion for him as a mother,” she said. “I can have compassion for him. I’m sure his family is suffering greatly because of what he did.”
Missing the point?
Law enforcement officers and others say it is unlikely that a person caught for drunk driving has been stopped the first time they’ve endangered themselves or others. This observation cuts both ways. On one hand, it suggests that the drivers have too often put others at risk and should face severe consequences. On the other, it suggests the problem is not one the criminal justice system is designed to solve.
Alcoholism is often behind the crime for the repeat offender, said Mark Pollock, president of the Napa County Bar Association. Pollock said he prosecuted 350 drunk driving cases when he worked at the Napa County district attorney’s office. Sending those in that category to jail doesn’t treat the underlying condition, he said.
“It just doesn’t work, and the more you treat it as a crime, the more you miss the point,” he said.
Defense attorney Paul Burglin said although there are some who treat a DUI conviction as a “mosquito bite,” the consequences can be devastating. Since all DUI convictions result in a temporary suspension of driving privileges, many who must drive for work face hardships or even lose their jobs. The names of drivers appear in newspapers, on Web sites and their convictions appear in background checks for job-seekers.
“For an otherwise law-abiding citizen, that is a blemish on their record that can be really humiliating,” said Burglin, who has offices in Marin and San Francisco but often represents Napa clients.
Drinking and driving may be a single type of crime in the eyes of the law, but it is not a one-size-fits-all category. “When you talk about fairness, it’s hard to use a broad brush because different people have different circumstances, both relative to the effect itself and relative to the impact on them,” he said.
For officers in their patrol cars, it is a matter of public safety and whether drivers are in compliance with the law. California Highway Patrol Officer Jaret Paulson said the risks of allowing impaired drivers to take the wheel are too great to let them go with warnings. Law enforcement agencies, as well as businesses and others, risk significant liability if they give drunk drivers a pass, he said.
The fact that Napa County is in the heart of California’s wine country affects perceptions and realities about drinking and driving here.
Living in wine country increases the opportunity for errors in judgment, said Vakharia.
Alcohol, she said, is “a very strong part of our culture. It’s a very strong part of how people socialize. It definitely increases our risk.”
The Napa County DUI Task Force conducted a survey and found that 30 to 40 percent of people were drinking at licensed businesses, such as bars or wineries, Vakharia said.
“Typically, when communities deal with drinking and driving they tend to focus on the individual’s behavior,” she said. “Oftentimes, we don’t look at the environments or the settings (where) the behavior is occurring.”
The task force’s efforts have focused on changing business practices. This includes encouraging employers to train workers on recognizing signs of impairment, for workers to avoid drinking and asking businesses not to offer drink specials or happy hours.
The task force has also coordinated an awareness campaign, handing out cards with taxi phone numbers and the serving sizes of drinks, Vakharia said.
Similar efforts have been for years a part of the program for the Napa Valley Vintners, which includes some 350 local wineries.
Vintners’ spokesman Terry Hall said the organization has a vigorous drunk-driving awareness training program headed up by former California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Jerry Jolly. It offers regular trainings to tasting room employees and volunteers who pour at some of the valley’s large wine galas.
Hall noted that statistics on DUI convictions here, including some gathered by the Register three years ago, show that Napa County does not have a higher percentage of tourist-related DUI convictions than other counties. Conditions here began to improve years ago when wineries discouraged “party busses” and began charging money for tastings, he said.
On the lookout
When it comes to DUI enforcement in Napa County, the heat is on.
The “Avoid the 9” campaign is a collaboration of nine local agencies working on drunk driving enforcement and prevention, said Napa Police Sgt. Tom Pieper.
Under a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration through the California Office of Traffic Safety, the campaign is beefing up drunk driving patrols and conducting regular DUI check points.
The most recent grant will fund the Napa area “Avoid the 9” campaign through Jan. 31, 2012, he said.
Separately, the city of Napa recently received a $124,359 year-long state grant to fund more checkpoints and additional patrols.
That grant helps explain the significant boost in DUI arrests in the city this year.
Loss into action
Both Ruiz and Cagwin, like many of those who have lost loved ones to drunk driving, have turned their loss into action.
Cagwin is trying to form a Yountville Mothers Against Drug Drivers group. Ruiz is also involved in MADD and has written letters pushing for stricter legislation regarding drunk driving.
She recently participated in a fundraising walk for the cause.
Ruiz urges parents to encourage their children to wait to drink until they are of legal age and to set a good example themselves.
“Parents have such an important role and need to exercise that role,” she said.
Ben Leavy would be 18 and in college had someone not chosen to drink and drive, Cagwin said. She asks that others not make the same mistake if they have been drinking.
“Don’t drive,” she said. “Have someone bring you home. It’s not worth the nightmare of killing someone.”