Rise in DUIs: 'Alcohol doesn't care, it's going to kill someone'

Rise in DUIs: 'Alcohol doesn't care, it's going to kill someone' »Play Video
FILE - One of many recent suspected DUI crashes is seen Thursday, April 24, 2014, on Highway 99 in Bakersfield, Calif. A woman was driving south on Hwy. 99 near Olive Drive when she rear-ended a pickup, causing her to drive off the road and hit a tree, authorities said. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The number of deadly drunk-driving cases has shot up in Kern County in the last six months. The special district attorney team that prosecutes these crimes says the drivers are mostly "recreational drinkers," and community attitudes need to change.

A young man serving a sentence for DUI told Eyewitness News that drivers just never think it can happen to them.

"I thought it was a one-in-a-million chance, couldn't happen," Kurt Evans told Eyewitness News. "And, now I'm that one in a million. It happens that quick."

He's now serving a four-year term for driving under the influence.

His DUI happened Oct. 26, 2012. Evans was driving, lost control of his truck, and his friend Kevin was killed.

Prosecutors say recently it's happening far too much.

"In the last six months we've seen an extreme increase of fatal crashes caused by people driving while impaired," Supervising Deputy District Attorney Mike Yraceburn said. "Twelve cases involved people who have killed other individuals while they've been driving impaired."

He added that there are more cases where drivers have killed themselves. And, that's a sharp jump. Yraceburn said in a similar time period last year, there were virtually no DUI homicide cases.

"Alcohol doesn't care, it's going to kill someone," Evans said, sitting in Lerdo Jail. "It's just a matter of time."

Evans says he was 18 when the fatal crash happened. He'd gone into the mountains near Lake Isabella with some friends and some beer.

Evans decided to get more fire wood, and jumped into his truck with Kevin.

"I could have walked, I could have done anything else," Evans said. "But decided to drive and ended up losing control, rolled about 175 feet."

Evans said he was thrown out first, and then Kevin.

"He died on impact," Evans said. "That's the hard part. Every day I wake up and realize that I'm in here, and why I'm in here."

Evans said he saw the "Life Interrupted" program in high school that warns teens about drinking and driving. "I guess it went into one ear and out the other," he said.

Getting the message through to drivers is the big frustration.

Yraceburn points to the crash in Bakersfield this January that killed a young girl, Princess Almoni-Dovar. It was caused by a suspected drunk driver.

"Everyone was upset for about a week," Yraceburn said. He complains that public attention fades, and argues it should not.

It certainly never fades for those who lost a loved one to drunk driving crashes. Yraceburn pointed to this year's Victim's March, with its huge turnout in downtown Bakersfield.

"Did you know that almost the majority of victims there were individuals that lost family members to DUIs, out of the hundreds that were there," Yraceburn said.

Evans knows he's caused pain for the family of his friend who died.

"They don't get to tell their son I love him anymore. Or hear 'I love you' from him," Evans said. "And, that's something you can never pay back or do anything to replace."

Asked who the drunk drivers are, Yraceburn characterized them as "recreational drinkers." He said they would probably describe themselves that way, and may drink daily and usually in social settings.

"In the majority of the cases, these individuals had prior convictions," Yraceburn added, looking through the recent DUI cases. He noted those with previous DUI cases may not have spent that much time in jail.

"They're getting minimum time in jail, less that 180 days," he said.

Asked if longer sentences could help, Yraceburn suggested trying to get drivers' attention sooner.

"Maybe the first-time DUI law needs to be changed so that it is real punishment," Yraceburn suggested. "Clearly the campaigning is not doing it, so punishment may have to do it."

That campaigning has been years of work to get out the "don't drink and drive" message.

Evans now shares his experience. He's been a speaker for the Victim Witness Panels for drivers convicted of DUI.

"They try to not pound it into their head, but punch them in the heart, get the emotions going," Evans said. He thinks the message gets through if people can identify with it.

He knows what he did has lasting impacts.

"It's just a matter of my poor decision-making, when it could have been a completely different outcome," Evans said.

And, he worries about losing job opportunities when he gets out of jail. "One decision, now four years and a strike," he said.

"People just aren't thinking." Yraceburn added. He said the recent deadly cases can involve being under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.

"People need to understand that one drink can impair you," he said.

How to turn this around?

"Just don't drink and drive, get a designated driver," Yraceburn said, adding that people need to be responsible for themselves and their friends. "Let them drink, and you drive, so that you have a designated driver. It's not that hard anymore."

The Kern County prosecutor's office has added a third attorney to the special unit that works on DUI cases. That work's been funded since 2010 through a special grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Last week, the office reported the unit has prosecuted more than 500 felony DUI cases so far, including "28 homicides in which 40 individuals were killed." They currently have 17 open DUI homicide cases.

"It could have never happened, if I would have made one choice not to drink, let alone drink and drive " Evans said. "It's something that's always in my head."