Two lives were nearly ruined the night a PHOENIX magazine columnist drank a glass of wine and got behind the wheel. Luckily, Arizona’s new DUI laws saved them both.
If my headlights hadn’t glinted off the spokes of his front bicycle tire, I wouldn’t have seen him before running him down. My Mustang was seconds from crushing him under its wheels as I drove up Third Street around 10 p.m. the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I was on my way home after seeing a play at Herberger Theatre and having a glass of wine at the Hyatt Regency. Mine was the only car on the one-way street. The night was clear and balmy, my driver’s-side window was down, and I was thinking about the short list of things I had left to do before my Thanksgiving trip to Sedona.
I wasn’t speeding, but I wasn’t dawdling along. I wasn’t drunk or impaired. I’d had just one drink, which is all I allow myself when I’m driving these days, since Arizona enacted the strictest drunk driving laws in the nation.
And then, all of a sudden, came that horrifying moment. It didn’t matter that I’ve never in my life run anyone over, or gotten into a serious car accident, that I’m a good person and a responsible citizen.
Nothing mattered except that, in the next moment, I was about to kill a kid on a bike. I’m guessing it was a boy, but I never saw enough of him to get a decent description. He was dressed in dark clothing with a hooded jacket snugged up around his head. Nor could I give you a description of his bike, except that it was a dark color without a single reflector.
I wonder just how long it was between first seeing his front tire and slamming down on the brake with all my strength, yanking the steering wheel all the way to the right, hoping to steer into the path he was leaving.
I’d like to report I screamed our Lord’s name in reverence, but I didn’t.
The kid kept riding, crossed Third and entered a side street, and all that time as I was watching my life unravel in front of me he didn’t seem aware of anything. I wondered later if he was plugged into some recording device, listening to music as he blithely went on his way to who knows where.
In those terrible moments, I knew this: I knew if I had hit him, I would have killed him. I knew I’d never get over it. It doesn’t matter that it wouldn’t have been my fault that the kid had ridden out in front of me I would have felt the guilt every day for the rest of my life.
Just as bad were the legal ramifications. In my mind, I could see the whirling red lights of a Phoenix police car. I could hear the squawk of its dashboard radio. I could imagine an officer giving me a sobriety test while another took out his tape measurer to see how long of a skid my tires had left behind. Out would come the clipboard and the questions where had I been, what had I done, how had this happened? This would not have just been a traffic accident. If that kid were lying dead in the street, it would have been a manslaughter investigation.
It was easy to visualize Sheriff Joe smiling at the prospect of jailing my sorry behind. And I also know this: After police would have radioed in that Jana Bommersbach was involved in a fatality, a television truck or two would have pulled up, and my former colleagues would have looked at me as a suspected murderer, not as their old friend.
Some reporters would care that I had but a five-ounce glass of wine after the theater an amount that wouldn’t register on a woman my size but still they’d report: Jana was drinking before the accident. I sat there in my car, idling across two lanes of Third Street, for several minutes before I regained my composure. My heart was pounding, my hands were shaking and my mind kept running through all the awful what-ifs.
I wish I could tell you my first Thanksgiving prayer was that the kid wasn’t killed. But to be honest, that thought came second right after the one that said, thank God I get to keep my life.
The very first Jana’s View column I ever wrote in 1993 began like this:
I’ve never been arrested for drunk driving. But only because I’m damn lucky. That first column recounted a time when I had driven drunk, back in 1973 when I was new to Phoenix and a young reporter working for The Arizona Republic.
You’ve got to remember what it was like back in 1973. This was before we ever heard the term designated driver, before Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and when the legal blood alcohol limit was .15 a level that today will get you slapped with an extreme drunk driving charge and mandatory prison time.
None of that is an excuse, of course. I was young and foolish and thought if I drove r-e-a-l slow, I could make it without detection, not knowing that creeping automobiles is a dead giveaway for cops looking for drunks.
I credited the nicest cop in the world for saving me that night in 1973 when he pulled me over. Jana, I like what you write, he told me as he looked at my license.
I wasn’t a well-known writer in those days, but I knew instantly why he recognized my name. I had just written a story for The Republic that said: Chances are 50-50 if you’re killed on the streets of Phoenix, a drunk driver will be responsible. It was a shocking story based on the latest research from the police department, and The Republic ran it prominently. I covered City Hall in those days, and I knew the story was posted on a lot of bulletin boards.
And now here I was, nabbed for driving when I’d had too much Christmas wine. I wrote in that first column: When you worked for Old Man Pulliam at the state’s largest family newspaper, and your latest story decried the sots on the street, and then you’re hauled in and have to call your hard-nosed editor to make bail, you didn’t have to be sober to know this moment could put the kibosh on a whole lot of dreams. At that moment, when my entire career could have been waylaid, when my reckless actions could have cost me everything, the nicest cop in the world took pity on me and followed me the short distance home so I wouldn’t hurt myself or anyone else.
I recounted all of that in my first column as I spent a weekend night with the city’s saturation enforcement program, which was more popularly called a drunk hunt. And I learned all kinds of shocking things about drunks and driving.
I learned that scientific studies showed people are first impaired when their blood alcohol reaches .05 far below the .08 level that has been the law in Arizona for years. And I learned this: In the 20 years since I had my own encounter with drunk driving, the odds remained a steady 50-50 that a drunk would kill you in a street collision.
So I held my breath recently as I called Sergeant Joel Tranter of the Phoenix Police Department the former head of the DUI enforcement division who has personally arrested more than 2,000 people for DUI to ask if things had gotten any better. And what a relief to hear we’re finally on the right track.
I’ve got some good news, Sergeant Tranter said over the phone. In the city of Phoenix, it’s not 50-50 anymore. Now it’s 35 percent of fatal traffic accidents are due to impaired driving. We have lots of reasons to celebrate that 15 percent decline.
He added that from 2006 to 2007, fatal collisions had dropped 23 percent in the city. He credits increased enforcement efforts and the new, strict drunk driving laws. We’ve upped the ante on driving drunk, he says, and if that isn’t an understatement, I don¹t know what is.
Here’s what you need to know about Arizona’s new laws:
– All DUI convictions require that an interlock device be installed on any vehicle you drive, a device that you’ll lease for a year and pay $700 to $900 for rent and installation.
– The first DUI conviction requires 10 days in jail, with 48 hours being consecutive and the other eight days in hotel time, where you are let out to work during the day and return to jail at night. (The old law called for 10 days but usually suspended nine of them and only required 24 hours in jail.)
– If you blow a .15 or greater, the law demands 30 days in jail and your car is impounded for a month, after which you’ll pay the storage and impound fees of at least $500.
– Don’t think you have to blow a .08 in order to be arrested. Most people are misinformed, thinking this is the legal limit. It’s not. It’s the presumed limit, meaning everyone is presumed to be impaired at .08 or higher. The other number you need to know is that everyone is presumed to be unimpaired under .05. But Sergeant Tranter says he has arrested people for being impaired around .05 the law says impaired to the slightest degree and has seen those arrests result in convictions.
– The average blood alcohol arrest is .15 to .18, and Sergeant Tranter says we have a lot around .20, which is now considered super extreme drunk driving and will send you to prison. These penalties are severe and can be career ending, and certainly career interfering, he notes. It’s expensive to get convicted of drunk driving in Arizona. If you defend yourself, you can expect to spend $10,000 in legal fees. In short, he says, it just isn’t worth it. It’s OK to go out and have a glass of wine with dinner, he notes. Personally, I have one glass of wine, and that’s it. It’s a lesson he wishes would resonate louder with younger folks, who make up the majority of drunk driving arrests. Of the 7,000 to 9,000 people arrested in Phoenix each year for drunken driving, he says the majority are drivers in their early 20s to mid-30s (just like me back in 1973).
I’m hearing talk on the street(s) that people are taking cabs or only drinking if they have a designated driver, or cutting down on their drinking, and all that¹s good, he says.
I hear him loud and clear. I hope everyone reading this column hears him. And I hope you pass this around to anyone you care about. In the end, I have to admit that this new law probably saved me. It’s probably the reason I got to keep my life. Because I’ll admit this: Before this fall, I didn’t have a one-drink limit when I was out with my friends. I had a two-drink limit and presumed I was fine. Since I never have been pulled over or come close to an accident, I thought I was. I’m not so sure anymore.
By that night after the theater, the new laws were in effect and so was my one-drink limit. Being sober and clear minded, having all my faculties and reflexes, was how I was able to stop and steer out of the way and not hit that kid.
I feel like I’ve been saved a second time.