Is Orange County's Epic Drunk Driving Problem About to Get Much Worse?

Is Orange County's Epic Drunk Driving Problem About to Get Much Worse?
Illustration: Brian Sendelbach | Design: Dustin Ames

Just before midnight on April 2, 2011, two 18-year-old boys were driving a 2001 Chevy Camaro in the fast lane of the northbound 57 freeway. The teens, who had graduated from JSerra Catholic high school in San Juan Capistrano, were heading toward Claremont McKenna College to hang out with friends.

A slow-moving car swung into the fast lane. The Camaro's driver, Logan Vescio of San Juan Capistrano, slammed on the brakes to avoid it. He lost control and hit the center divider. The air bags deployed as he steered his disabled car across the highway to the right shoulder, just south of Katella Avenue.

An alert young driver, Maryann Tran, 21, saw the accident unfold and parked her Honda Civic on the shoulder, in front of the disabled Camaro. Vescio's passenger, Cameron Cook of Ladera Ranch, got out and stood next to the vehicle while Vescio, who was bruised from the crash, slid into the passenger seat. As Tran gave the teens water and asked if they were all right, a second Honda Civic, driven by Ashley Selina Bryan, then 24, sped toward the scene. Bryan, whose blood-alcohol content (BAC) was later determined to be more than twice the legal limit, failed to avoid the disabled car.

Bryan: Drove with a BAC of 0.17, twice the legal limit
Bryan: Drove with a BAC of 0.17, twice the legal limit
Not even FDR could stop drunk driving
Library of Congress
Not even FDR could stop drunk driving

The impact caused the parked Camaro to move, dumping Vescio out of the car and onto the highway. He was later found to have suffered a concussion, as well as cuts and bruises.

But Cook got the brunt of it. The muscle car slammed into him as he stood on the shoulder. He was thrown over the guardrail and off the highway, onto the embankment 60 feet below.

The Camaro ended up in the No. 2 lane of the 57. Vescio landed flat on his back on the busy highway.

Tran had jumped out of the way when she saw Bryan's Honda approaching. She briefly glanced down at Cook, lying on the embankment 60 feet below. Realizing there was little she could do for him, she ran onto the highway to Vescio. Somehow, the 5-foot-3 woman dragged the 6-foot-tall Vescio to safety.

Police and first responders quickly arrived at the accident site; Cook died of his injuries at a hospital several hours later.

Investigators soon determined the "accident" was actually a crime. Bryan, of the San Bernardino County city of Highland, had been drinking long before she got on the 57. Tested almost two hours after the crash, her BAC was 0.17 percent; the legal threshold of impaired driving is 0.08 percent.

Bryan was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; driving under the influence of alcohol, causing bodily injury; and driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more, causing bodily injury. There was also a sentencing enhancement for multiple victims, considering both Cook's death and Vescio's injuries.

She was ultimately convicted of drunken driving and pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter. Before sentencing in May of this year, she gave a tearful apology to Cook's family. Her public defender told the court she had been attending rehab and substance-abuse programs since the crash. Her parents made statements on her behalf, indicating her remorse and her regret for "making bad decisions." The judge encouraged Bryan to continue speaking to groups about the dangers of drinking and driving, as he sentenced her to six years in state prison.

*     *     *

As gruesome as it was, Bryan's crime is depressingly typical of those involving most DUI fatalities. She was not an underage drinker, such as the recent high-school graduate who killed his friend on Santiago Canyon Road and was sentenced to 14 years. Her victim wasn't famous, as was Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, who died in April 2009 when a man driving while several times above the legal BAC limit plowed into the car he was in. (As the Weekly previously reported, Adenhart's underage driver, who also died in the incident, was also driving drunk.) Nor was Bryan a law-enforcement officer, such as the former OC sheriff's deputy who showed up intoxicated to his DUI hearing or the deputy with a BAC of 0.24 who was arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road in Costa Mesa. Nor was she a multiple previous offender with six different drugs in her system, as was the man who drove onto the sidewalk and killed a woman who was walking her dog in Laguna Niguel.

Her crime only differs substantially from the "norm" because while women may be taking over the world, men still dominate DUI arrests and fatalities. In 2010, males accounted for some 77.6 percent of DUI arrests in California. But according to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs (CDAP), the proportion of females among convicted DUI offenders has risen consistently every year since 1989.

More important, Bryan's crime fits a key pattern: DUI drivers who kill people are usually not tipsy, but rather very drunk.

According to National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,102 of the 12,012 people with a BAC of 0.01 or higher who were involved in fatal crashes—a figure that represents 84 percent of the total—had BAC levels at or above the legal limit. But drivers with a high BAC (0.15 percent or above) accounted for more than half of all alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to both NHTSA and CDAP. The average BAC level of a convicted DUI offender, as reported by law enforcement, was 0.15 percent in 2009. And according to NHTSA, in 2009, the most frequently recorded BAC level among drunk drivers in fatal crashes was 0.17 percent, the same as Bryan's.

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