Wrong Way Drivers | SierraSun.com

Wrong Way Drivers

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Photo by Ryan Salm/Sierra SunA sobriety checkpoint was conducted by the California Highway Patrol and Truckee Police last month in Truckee.

After six Sierra Nevada Pale Ales at a holiday party in Squaw Valley just days before Christmas 2004, a 37 year old local was eager to get to his new house a few miles down the road.

“I’m just gonna drive the speed limit home,” Knowell, whose name has been changed at his request, thought that night.

“When [the sheriff] pulled me over, I thought ‘My life is changed … two years of hell … $10,000.’ I thought I was gonna lose my house. That this was it,” Knowell says.

Having had a previous conviction of driving under the influence in Fresno less than seven years earlier, Knowell was well aware of the fines, court time, community service, charges, costs and classes he was to endure in the months following a second DUI.

“I knew I’d had over the limit, too much to drink,” Knowell says. “But I’d just bought this house. I figured it was only a couple of miles. It was a bad call. I should have called home. My wife would have picked me up.”

And even though being stopped by police meant tough times ahead for Knowell, things could have ended one of many other ways. Knowell could have crashed his car. He could have hit a guardrail, oncoming traffic or even a pedestrian.

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Knowell is certainly not the first, and won’t be the last, to make the impaired decision to drink and drive. Be it nationally or locally, driving drunk is an epidemic.

Each year an average of 23,000 people are killed in alcohol-related vehicle accidents in the U.S., according to the California Highway Patrol. And each year the CHP, Placer County Sheriff’s Department and the Truckee Police Department make hundreds of DUI arrests.

With winding, mountainous and sometimes icy two-lane roads, the stakes in North Tahoe and Truckee are much higher, law enforcement officials say.

Often the people who risk their own and others’ lives are repeat DUI offenders, continuing to drink and drive despite arrests, fines and mandatory alcohol education classes. Between 50 and 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive with suspended licenses, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“Getting a DUI is not a bad thing if it results in the changing of behavior,” Knowell says. “The worst outcome of drinking and driving would be to hurt or kill someone else or yourself.”

A mangled bicycle, an unidentifiable body and a lone license plate were scattered across Highway 89 outside Tahoe City late on July 16. The scene was the deadly fallout of drunk driving, which hit home for the North Tahoe community after 35-year-old Joseph Santen climbed into his Jeep following what Placer County prosecutors believe was a night of drinking.

After three DUI convictions over the last six years, according to the Placer County District Attorney’s office, Santen knew the consequences of getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.

Driving home, Santen allegedly struck Brad Reilly, 27, with such force that it ripped Santen’s license plate from his Jeep. Despite the impact, Santen continued home, according to the CHP, leaving Reilly on the ground fighting for his life.

Reilly died days later of head injuries from the collision, leaving behind a wake of grieving family and friends. Authorities have not determined whether Reilly was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident or how visible he was to motorists. By all accounts, though, he was riding his bike along the road as he always did.

“He was a free spirit,” Reilly’s mother, Lynn Eaton, told the Sierra Sun following the accident.

“Being in Tahoe made him happy,” friend Christy Deysher recalled.

“He was always smiling,” another friend, Mich Pavel, told the Sun.

Similar tragedies resulting from alcohol-related incidents occur every 22 minutes in the United States, according to the CHP.

Reilly’s friends and loved ones continue to grieve his death, as Santen sits awaiting his trial on charges of murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and drunken driving.

Fortunately for Knowell, he has not had to endure the tragedy of taking another person’s life. But that is not to say his actions went without serious repercussions.

He is now part of the multiple offender program with Sierra Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the contracted treatment and education service for Placer County. Since his arrest a year and a half ago, he says his life has changed in many ways.

“When you get your first DUI you say it’s society’s fault,” Knowell says. “When you get your second DUI you think, ‘I can’t do that anymore.’ And now you stop blaming people and come up with a plan so that you never put yourself in a position where it’s even possible to drink and drive.”

Nearly 2,000 people attended the Sierra Council’s DUI offender classes between July 2004 and June 2005, with 825 of those attendees second or even third offenders. Sierra Council is not the only court-mandated first offender program in Placer County, but does offer the only multiple DUI offender classes.

“A lot of people are repeat [DUI offenders] because they haven’t learned the lesson,” John Phillips, director of Community Recovery Resources in Truckee, says. “They feel they have the right to drink. Only the problem is that they drink and drive.”

One hallmark of alcoholism is making the same mistake repeatedly, says Deb Martin, the chief executive officer of Sierra Council.

“Common sense would dictate that you’d change your behavior. It’s not that they’re bad or stupid. They’re just not able,” Martin says.

Alcoholism, Martin says, is at the core of the problem with driving under the influence.

Knowell, however, disagrees. He sees DUI’s as a product of where and how people live, and that designated drivers, taxis and public transit can be hard to come by.

“Most of the people getting DUI’s are not alcoholics,” Knowell says. “Most people just didn’t have a way home on an average night out. The problem is bigger than alcoholism. It’s a transportation problem.”

Tahoe City bartender and long-time local George Howell agrees that more readily available transit may alleviate some degree of drunken drivers.

“Maybe if they ran the public transportation system later, past midnight, I think it would definitely help,” Howell says. “If it’s not an issue now, address it when it is.”

The DUI problem extends beyond Tahoe and Truckee locals. The tourist-dependent bars attract many out-of-town party-seekers who must also find a way back to their ski rental or hotel room after a night on the town. According to Placer County, non-residents compose 43 percent of the drunk driving arrests in the county.

Whether it is a transit problem, addiction or just bad judgment, 50 percent of Americans will be involved in an automobile accident involving alcohol in his/her lifetime, according to the California Highway Patrol Web site.

While DUIs cost both perpetrators and victims significant time and money, they also consume the energies of county courts and law enforcement. In North Tahoe, authorities estimate that policing and prosecuting drunk driving makes up between one third and one half of the criminal cases.

The numbers are similar for Truckee police and the Nevada County court system.

“I would say typically I see at least 12 DUI’s per month. That’s a very conservative estimate. Sometimes more and sometimes less,” says David Humphreys, a deputy public defender with Nevada County. “There are definitely multiple offenders fairly regularly, too.”

The Truckee Police Department has made 308 DUI arrests and responded to 48 alcohol-related collisions since January 2004.

While estimates are informal, the Placer County Sheriff’s office says that DUI citations are among the top reasons for arrests in North Tahoe. But the issue is not Truckee and North Tahoe’s alone.

“Driving under the influence is a problem in every jurisdiction of this state, as well as all other 49 states,” Humphreys says.

Knowell understands first hand the reality of drinking and driving. Following a DUI arrest in 1998 and a second one in 2004, he continues to pay the price for driving under the influence. He continues to attend classes and counseling through Sierra Council, and recently made the decision to abstain from alcohol. He is a dedicated new father, husband and active member of the community.

“The bottom line,” Knowell says, “is if you kill someone, you will never recover from that. I know I’m not going to drink and drive again. I have too much to lose.”