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Holiday Drinking Spills onto Roadways

Police say planning ahead can prevent tragedy.

<bt>Since 1981, every U.S. president has designated December National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month. The reason is that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays increase the number of persons who drink, use drugs and drive — and die because they choose to drive.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, impaired driving will affect one in three Americans during their lifetime. In 2003, 17,013 people died in alcohol-related crashes, accounting for 40 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the United States. An alcohol-related motor vehicle crash kills someone every 31 minutes and nonfatally injures someone every two minutes.

In Virginia in 2003, 361 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, a 3.73 percent decrease from 2002. Nearly 8000 people were injured in alcohol related crashes, a 7.63 percent decrease from 2002. Thirty-nine teenagers, aged 15 to 19 were killed in alcohol-related crashes in the Commonwealth; 926 teenagers of the same age were injured in such incidents.

In 2003 in Alexandria, 476 people were arrested for Driving While Impaired: 475 adults and one juvenile. In 2002, 390 people were arrested for the same offense, 289 adults and one juvenile.

Officer Seth Weinstein arrests many drunk and drugged drivers in Alexandria.

WEINSTEIN HAS BEEN a member of the Alexandria Police Department for the past five years. Before that, he worked in Raleigh, N.C. as a police officer. Before that, he was a military police officer.

Weinstein has earned a reputation for stopping drivers who are driving under the influence of intoxicants, arresting them and making the cases stick in court.

“I have arrested diplomats from foreign countries and other VIPs,” he said. “I have been working on the streets for a while and can see the signs. If someone appears to be impaired, I watch them, run their tags and stop them if I think it is appropriate.”

He stops them because he sees them exhibiting certain types of behavior. “They weave in an S curve, sometimes not even outside the lines of their lanes,” he said. “Sometimes they will weave into another lane and then jerk their vehicles back into the correct lane. If someone goes across the yellow line into another lane repeatedly, that’s a good sign that something is wrong and that I should stop them and investigate.”

He is assigned to patrol the streets of Alexandria on the midnight shift, when he drives the streets and checks the license tags of cars he is behind. Sometimes, he finds a stolen vehicle or some other reason to stop the driver. Mostly, he just watches for a driver to do something illegal. “I’ve been encouraged to take the detective’s exam but I really like patrol,” Weinstein said. “I like finding my own crime.”

“IT’S AMAZING WHAT people do,” he said. “It’s like the lights and the logos on my very marked car just disappear, and people proceed to speed or behave in some other illegal manner.”

On a warm October night, Weinstein demonstrated his point. A 20 year old was driving north on Route 1, doing 20 miles over the posted speed limit. Weinstein ran his tags, followed him for some period of time and eventually stopped him for speeding.

“I was trying to get out of the way,” the driver told Weinstein when the officer went to his door. The driver had switched lanes when he saw the police car behind him.

“I was late getting off work, but I haven’t been drinking,” the driver said again by way of explanation.

Weinstein wrote a speeding ticket but did not ask the driver to undergo field sobriety tests. “He was in a hurry and didn’t think I could possibly be following him,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein has become known as an expert in DWI cases. “As you spend time on the streets and watch the way people drive, you just begin to develop an understanding of what is happening,” he said.

People react very differently to being stopped. “Some are belligerent; some are apologetic and some are just resigned,” he said. “You get all kinds.”

Weinstein is one of two officers who has a video camera mounted on his dashboard and a microphone. Every traffic stop is caught in sight and sound, including the field sobriety tests.

“It’s a great tool,” Weinstein said. “In court, there’s no disputing what happened because it’s right there on tape and in their own words.”

Weinstein is a decorated member of Alexandria’s Special Operations Team, having received two different Valor Awards since becoming a member of the department. He remains on the streets because he is concerned about the behavior of those people who are out there.

“Drunk driving is so preventable,” he said. “Many people drink — that’s not illegal. When they drink and drive, that’s a different matter. All it takes is some planning. When I go out or when many people I know go out, we simply plan ahead. Either designate a driver who is not going to drink or plan to take a taxi home. It really isn’t that hard and it saves lives.

“Thankfully, I’ve never seen a fatal accident because of drinking and driving here in Alexandria but I did in North Carolina. There was this retired couple and they were out driving. Some guy decided he needed to go and get more beer for a party and hit them. The wife died. People just don’t think,” he said.

WHEN WEINSTEIN ARRESTS individuals for Driving While Intoxicated, the Commonwealth’s Attorney's Office in Alexandria prosecutes them. Karin Riley handles those responsibilities.

“It is surprising how many people are repeat offenders,” Riley said. “I prosecute someone and then see them in the courtroom again within the year. Some of them just don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation until something really awful happens.”

Something really awful like a woman not being able to walk again. “We don’t have that many fatalities here in Alexandria because of drunk driving, but we do have serious accidents,” Riley said.

Her boss, S. Randolph Sengel, has seen fatalities. “We don’t have that many fatalities and that is because the police are doing such a good job,” he said. “They are vigilant; stop offenders and document their cases so well that we have about a 90 to 95 percent conviction rate in DWI cases. That’s because our police are well trained and do their jobs,” he said.

DWI cases are generally prosecuted in General District Court.

Virginia law does not distinguish between Driving While Intoxicated and Driving Under the Influence. In the Commonwealth, an adult — over age 21 — is legally impaired when he/she has a blood alcohol content of a .08 or above. An individual who is between the ages of 16 and 21 and legally licensed to drive a car is considered to be impaired when he/she has a blood alcohol of .02 or above.

In July, 2004, the law changed to require mandatory minimum sentences for anyone with a blood alcohol of .15 or above. “Surprisingly, that would have impacted more than 30 percent of our cases,” Sengel said. “If you think about it, that’s a lot of alcohol to consume.”

At the time of prosecution, many victims choose to testify. “They have a right to enter a Victim Impact Statement and/or to appear in court,” Riley said. “One of our most severely injured victims couldn’t face testifying and submitted a written statement. I think people don’t realize just what the consequences are unless they are confronted with the victims of what they have done.”

ANIBAL ROJAAS IS ONE such victim. A native of Bolivia, he came to the United States in the 1980s to find a better life for his family. In 1985, his wife and three small children joined him in Arlington, enduring hardships to make their way here. A fourth child was born shortly after the family’s arrival and was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome.

Rojaas provided well for his family, achieving the American dream of home ownership and an education for his children. In 2002, his oldest child, Rosalia, became a United States citizen and celebrated with her two siblings by taking a trip to Europe. The three adult children visited their uncle in Paris, traveled to Amsterdam and Rome and explored Europe. They returned to Dulles International Airport on a rainy night in March, 2002.

Anibal Rojaas and his youngest son, Cesar, met the three returning travelers. The five got into the Rojaas van and were on their way home to Arlington when a drunk driver hit the driver’s side of the van at a stop light.

“I heard my dad moan,” said Rosalia Rojaas, an Alexandria resident. “Then, the driver of the other came up to my door and asked if everything was all right.

“I smelled liquor and he seemed disoriented. I had to ask him several times to call for help. Finally we got help and my father was taken to Fairfax Hospital.”

The next day, the father of four and the family’s wage earner was declared brain dead. The family had to make the decision to remove him from life support and, somehow, get on with their lives.

“Cesar still asks where he is,” Rosalia said. “He wasn’t at my wedding, won’t be at my sister or brother’s weddings and won’t meet his grandchildren. My mother has had to deal with things she wasn’t prepared to deal with and our family is changed forever — all because someone had too many drinks and drove a car. People just don’t think about the consequences of their behavior — I didn’t either.”

GUS DUDA of Alexandria is nearly 85 years old. He began drinking in college, as do many Americans. “I would describe myself as a social drinker,” Duda said.

At Christmastime 12 years ago, Duda attended a function in North Carolina. “It’s a function that I almost always attend,” Duda said. “That year was particularly difficult because we had just learned that an old friend had died. You might say that we celebrated his life a bit too much and I decided to drive back to my hotel.”

The roads in Nags Head, in December, are pretty deserted. “I was driving down the Beach Road when I was stopped by a police officer,” Duda said. “I told him that no one else was on the road. I’ll never forget what he said. ‘I am,’ he said, and that really made an impression.”

Duda spent nearly $5,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs and in the cost of attending ASAP, the court-mandated Alcohol Safety Awareness Program. More important was the lesson he learned.

“There was a period in my life when I spent a great deal of time at a certain watering hole in Washington,” Duda said. “The type of work I was doing and the company I was keeping was just conducive to that kind of life.

“During that period of time, there were many nights when I drove home and woke up the next morning having no idea how I got the car to my apartment. It is a miracle that I wasn’t killed and didn’t kill anyone else and that is true of many of the people who were drinking with me.

“Today, I still drink but I always arrange for a ride. We are responsible for our actions and sometimes responsibility just takes planning,” Duda said.