Sadly, real-life cases deliver sobering message best

January 07, 2007 11:00 pm

By now the message may seem old.

Since before Thanksgiving it's been on television and radio, in newspapers and on the lips of every officer, deputy and patrolman asked about the holidays. It's even blinked from electronic message boards at the entrances to Sonora.

"Don't drink and drive," it goes. "Find a designated driver." "Call 911 to report drunk drivers."

Each December, as the holiday party season shifts into high gear, that message is repeated even more often: The California Highway Patrol goes to "maximum enforcement," sets up checkpoints, and releases grim tallies of DUI arrests, injuries and deaths.

All the while, the drum beats again and again: If you drink, stay home. Or find a sober driver.

Lost in the din may be the heartbreak and tragedy that are too often consequences of drunken driving. Instead some may become complacent in the face of repeated warnings.

"It can't happen to me," goes the flawed logic of the driver who has had one too many.

But it does happen: In 2005, 182,414 drivers were arrested for DUIs in California, nearly 800 of them in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

And we've heard the numbers: Court costs, fines and insurance premium increases can push the cost of a single DUI arrests to $10,000 or more. Get arrested more than once and those numbers increase exponentially.

But dollar-and-cents figures are nothing, absolutely nothing, when contrasted with the real costs of drunken driving. Those are costs that are now being paid day by day and hour after agonizing hour by the families of Jackson Lawe, Ernest Mann and Steven Ferrari.

All three died at the hands of drunken drivers:

• Last October Lawe, 43, was run down on Highway 108 by Joanne Dues, a 55-year-old Soulsbyville woman who was so drunk she didn't remember hitting and killing the pedestrian.

• Mann and Ferrari, 16 and 17, lost their lives in May of 2004, when their car ran off a White Pines area road, hit two trees and ended up in a creek bed. A Calaveras County Superior Court jury is now deciding who was at the wheel — Mann's older brother or another teen friend, both of whom were drunk at the time of the crash.

Dues will spend four years in prison and Mann faces a 12-year term if convicted. But wounds delivered in a split second of crushing metal cannot be healed by judges or juries.

Consider Jackson Lawe Sr., who has now lost two sons to drunken drivers. He has forgiven Dues, but his pain is unfathomable.

Or Anthony Mann, who was in Calaveras County Superior Court as a prosecutor insisted that one of his sons had killed the other. His is the kind of torture reserved only for hidden corners of hell.

And the two fathers have no corner on the pain these cases have brought. No member of the families involved has escaped unhurt. Tears have flowed, consolation is scarce and logical explanations are cruelly nonexistent.

"It can't happen to me."

Nonsense: More than 1,500 died in California DUI crashes in each of the last two years. And each of those deaths brought with it the kind of gut-wrenching tragedy we have seen unfold in the Lawe and Mann cases.

Despite this, alcohol-related traffic fatalities in California haven risen 55 percent since 1998. Some speculate that the repeated message is losing its impact.

That's why, as the holidays end and the annual anti-DUI campaigns wind down, we should not forget the raw, excruciating pain seen in courtrooms on both sides of the Stanislaus River during this year's Christmas season.

Yes, it can happen. And each driver who thinks about getting behind the wheel after just one more must ask the question: Is it worth the risk?

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.