Have you priced a DUI lately? It's not exactly an aspirational purchase, such as a pair of Louboutins or a Viking stove, but it's just as hefty. According to the Automobile Club of Southern California (a.k.a. the local AAA), a first-offense misdemeanor DUI conviction can cost up to $15,649. Do your DUI before the age of 21, and it can set you back $22,492. The AAA figures are based on state and local fines, penalties, legal fees, court fees and increased insurance costs. The flip answer is that this kind of money would buy a lot of taxi rides.

But the problem with the suburban sprawl of Orange County is there's limited public transportation, cabs aren't cheap, and the vast majority of bars and restaurants have tempting parking lots. If you do get a cab, you'll have to find a way to retrieve your car before dawn the next day, or it could be towed.

As one would expect, many more people are driving impaired than are lining the walls of the OC jail. While about 13,000 people from Orange County are convicted of DUI each year, the statistics show that drivers may drive under the influence 80 times before they're caught. According to AAA, 10 percent of motorists admitted driving when they thought their BAC was above the legal limit in the past year.

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

Despite a very active law-enforcement presence and consistent prosecution by the district attorney's office, Orange County has one of the worst drunk-driving problems in California. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, 10 Orange County cities rank among the worst in the state for rates of injuries and fatalities caused by DUI. Of all California cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000, Orange ranks No. 1 for drunken driving fatalities and collisions. Santa Ana and Anaheim rank No. 3 and No. 10, respectively, among cities with more than 250,000 people.

Newport Beach is No. 1 for cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000. Yet it's not for lack of enforcement; Newport Beach police arrested more than 650 people for suspected DUI in 2011.

CHP statistics from 2010 show that Orange County ranked second only to Los Angeles County in the state for DUI deaths and injury collisions. During that year, there were more than 1,000 DUI-related injury collisions in Orange County, more than in either San Diego or San Bernardino counties. The arrest rate is quickly growing among young people in college towns. Fullerton, for example, went from fifth in DUI arrests of drivers younger than 21 in 2009 to first in 2010.

Although the number of deaths from DUI has dropped in Orange County and elsewhere in recent years, the problem of the manslaughter and mayhem caused by highly intoxicated drivers such as Bryan is clear. What's not clear is whether moving to a 0.05 percent BAC is the solution.

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If you listen to commercial radio in Southern California, it's almost inevitable you will hear Berman, 58, an aggressive advertiser who calls himself the Southland's "Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney." His slogan, "Friends don't let friends plead guilty," is almost equally familiar. He and his affiliated attorneys practice in Orange and LA counties, as well as surrounding areas. They concentrate on DUI defense, but, as Berman notes, "Often with DUI, there is another criminal case for hit and run, possession, etc."

"Law enforcement in Orange County is very active in combating intoxicated drivers," Berman acknowledges. "The police are very aggressive in Orange County, trying to keep the streets safe as they see it. . . . And they do arrest a lot of people, around holiday times especially."

Berman concedes that this vigilance can have a positive effect. "When there is a large presence of law enforcement on the streets and freeways," he says, "people are more apt to drive safer."

But if the legislature approved a move to 0.05 percent BAC, Berman says, "Obviously, more people would be arrested for DUI. There would be more cases in the system; more innocent people would be convicted. Breath testing is not an accurate way to measure a person's alcohol in their blood or whether they are intoxicated.

"The prohibitionists are trying to get to zero tolerance as long as I've been practicing in California," Berman continues. With a move to 0.05 percent BAC, revenues for the multibillion-dollar DUI "industry" would grow. "It definitely will create more work for the people, the courts, the prosecutors, more business for the alcohol programs, the interlock companies, and increase revenues to the county and state. It will have a substantial impact on many industries, like hospitality, restaurants, bars, alcohol distillers, bottlers, plastic companies, paper goods—you name it."

The impact of a lower BAC on the restaurant industry, which employs 1.4 million Californians, might be particularly heavy. The OC Restaurant Association, for example, coordinates events such as Wine Week and Beer Week in the fall. Pam Waitt, president of the OC Restaurant Association, says if the NTSB-recommended limit is adopted, "it's going to hurt a lot of restaurants. The average person can handle a glass of wine with dinner. The general consensus is that they're attacking the social drinker, not the person who is creating this problem."

Angie Pappas of the California Restaurant Association agrees. "Only a very small sliver of DUI arrests occur between 0.05 and 0.08," she says. "It's overwhelming to think that someone who isn't impaired now would be considered impaired." To help address the DUI issue, the association offers ServeSafe Certification, beverage-service training for restaurants. It teaches how much one can legally drink based on weight and sex and how the body processes alcohol. The program also looks at what Pappas calls "the pours; a lot of cocktails are more than one drink." People skills, such as how to cut off customers, and strategies to serve them food or water are also included.

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