Rash of DUI-involved deaths leaves communities stunned

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In the past nine months, six people have been killed in area car collisions involving drivers that law enforcement officials have said were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Those numbers are significant for a region as small as southwest Riverside County and were amplified recently when a Murrieta girl and woman were killed in separate crashes last week in Temecula within the span of four days.

The public’s reaction to the loss of life has been anger and compassion, and for good reason, but it has also opened a dialogue involving residents, public officials and law enforcement officials about the issue of driving under the influence.

The deaths of Lily Kelly Harrison, 15, and Janet Genao, 44, of Murrieta and the injuries sustained by other people involved in the two crashes, has also unified the community.

Donors have stepped up by raising more than $70,000 to date for people affected by the two Temecula crashes alone. Another local business person offered to cover burial costs for the family of one of the victims.

But all that compassion can’t erase the impact that a rash of driving under the influence-involved traffic deaths that have struck in the region.

Kristil Kincaid and her unborn daughter were killed when an alleged drunken driver hit them head-on in Hemet Sept. 10, 2018. Cindy Oropeza Soto, 25, of Hemet died in a rollover crash when the driver of the car she was in nodded off, Jan. 27. California Highway Patrol Officer Sgt. Steve Licon died April 6, when an alleged drunken driver slammed into him while he was making a traffic stop in Lake Elsinore. Frank Dominguez, 63, of Menifee died May 25, when an alleged drunken driver hit his car while he was parked at a traffic light.

The final two victims, Harrison was killed when the car she was traveling in on Rancho California Road was hit by an alleged drunken driver, and Genao died when a man believed to be under the influence of drugs slammed his truck at more than 100 miles per hour into the back of her car, June 4.

“DUI is prevalent across the nation, but here locally we’ve been hit pretty hard by it within the past few days,” California Highway Patrol, Temecula Area Officer and Public Information Officer Mike Lassig said in a meeting with the Valley News. “It’s pretty tragic; it hits home because they’re local people. This is such a great community; everybody comes out when a family is in need like that, so we appreciate the family coming out to support the individuals.”

Lassig met with the Valley News at the Temecula Promenade near a smashed up car he had placed in a courtyard to show the devastating effects of a crash involving a drunken driver.

He said he placed the car there Friday, just a day before the crash that took the life of Harrison on Rancho California Road.

Lassig said he was saddened by the recent tragedies – he’s lived in the Temecula Valley for more than 25 years, raised his children here – and he pointed toward several contributing factors to why the rate at which these kinds of accidents are occurring is increasing.

He mentioned the increased traffic and congestion on the roadways due to growth in the region, the increased usage of marijuana while driving, people driving while using prescription medication and repeat DUI offenders continuing to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

“It just blows me away,” he said.

Temecula City Councilmember Zak Schwank was planning to address the subject at Tuesday’s city council meeting, after press deadline, but he spoke to the Valley News about how the city has been affected by the crashes.

“Every time something major like this happens, we all start to reflect, and I’m reading social media posts about how everyone’s driving slower and they’re being patient and letting people in,” he said. “For as many years as we’ve lived here, I’ve always felt that traffic violence was just sort of overlooked. This isn’t a turning point for me, this is something I’ve always been passionate about. We have an extremely safe city and high quality of life, but when you start to throw in some of the collisions and some of the fatalities that we’ve seen over the years, it really starts to weigh on you.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Association, in 2017 there were 10,874 fatalities in the United States in motor vehicle traffic crashes involving drunk drivers, which totaled 29% of all traffic fatalities nationwide.

Of those fatalities involving children ages 14 and younger, 19% occurred in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes.

Drivers under the influence were 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a fatality crash at night than during the day, and of the 10,874 alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities, 68% involved drivers that had a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher.

California ranked second only to Texas in DUI fatalities in that year.

Since organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers were formed back in the early 1980s, it is safe to say that drunken driving statistics have dropped significantly.

Southwest Riverside County schools – including Great Oak, Hamilton, and Murrieta Valley high schools this year – present the Every 15 Minutes program for school-aged students to learn about the dangers of drunk, drugged and distracted driving.

According to Officer Lassig, he and the Temecula Area officers with the CHP are constantly educating the community and students as to the dangers of DUI driving.

But still, on average, a DUI-involved fatality happens every 50 minutes in the United States.

With 30 years of education and consistent messaging about the dangers of drunken driving – has the community become desensitized to the message?

“I don’t think so, because you look at the social media, I was reading quite a few sites about what happened (June 4),” Lassig said. “Everybody is commenting and a large majority of these people showed a lot of compassion for the victim and the victims involved in that collision. I think everyone recognizes the seriousness of the crime.”

Lassig indicated that, in his personal opinion, maybe the penalties aren’t harsh enough and maybe the bail amounts aren’t high enough either.

“There was a $75,000 bail for the incident in De Luz,” Lassig said of the crash involving Harrison. “To me that doesn’t seem like enough. I know we put in for a $5 million bail for this guy (Javier Caldera, who police said caused the Interstate 15 crash that killed Genao), but the judge put it at $1 million and that’s where we’re sitting at right now. But we have nothing to do with that, that’s not our job to set bail. We make recommendations to the court.”

Zach Kincaid was on the phone with his pregnant wife, Krystil, when a suspected drunken driver swerved into her lane hitting her head-on and killing her in Hemet in September 2018. He said he thinks the laws aren’t harsh enough.

What was particularly devastating to Kincaid was finding out that alleged drunken driver wouldn’t face charges for the death of his unborn daughter, Avalynn.

“I knew as soon as I found out that this guy was (allegedly) drunk; I knew, deeper than that, I had a problem with actually someone getting what they deserve for doing what they did to my wife and daughter,” Kincaid said shortly after the accident. “I was surprised (vehicular manslaughter) only went up to a 10-year max. But it’s not enough.

“The drunken driving, we have to create deterrents, we have to stop playing this game saying there’s no intent and giving people excuses,” Kincaid said.

Schwank questioned whether the acceptability of heavy drinking is becoming an issue in the region and talked about the responsibility of local bars, breweries and wineries, as well as California Alcohol Beverage Control.

“It’s such a complex issue,” he said. “The social side of (drinking) is huge; the lack of public transit is huge. You go to Old Town, and after 6 p.m., there’s no public transit; the wineries, there’s no public transit. So, there’s no option.”

Schwank said city council members are “tasked to lead,” and he said he and Mayor Mike Naggar met to discuss what the city can do to shed light on traffic fatalities, even before the two most recent crashes.

“This is a pretty complex issue; obviously we don’t control the DUI laws and things like that,” Schwank said. “But what can we do as a council? What can we do as a city? Is this acceptable? I will speak for myself and I’m sure the rest of the council will feel the same way, but this is completely unacceptable. We have children dying.

“My thing is ‘hey, let’s start the dialogue,’ a task force or a subcommittee. I want to know data, where are the collisions happening and why are they happening? If there’s something we can do from an infrastructure standpoint to mitigate this, to slow them down, to make them less deadly, then that’s something we need to take a hard look at and make sure that’s something we can do,” Schwank said.

Lassig said that in his opinion, it’s never been easier to avoid drinking and driving with the advent of rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, and said that he ends all of his press releases with the phrase, “100% of drunken driving incidents are 100% avoidable.”

“Because that’s 100% percent accurate,” he said.

He said the CHP’s Temecula Area office is available to come out and speak to organizations about the dangers of drunk and drugged driving and interested parties should contact the office at (951) 506-2000.

“Regardless of what age demographics I am talking to, that’s what I bring up, I talk about. If they make a poor decision, there’s going to be consequences,” he said. “These two drivers who just recently killed people due to their irresponsible decisions, there’s going to be major consequences for them.”

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.