We need stronger measures to deal with habitually impaired drivers

Denise Gafner Mendoza was required to pay for this sign as part of her restitution after being convicted in the 2001 death of tow-truck driver Tanner Rothfleisch.
Denise Gafner Mendoza was required to pay for this sign as part of her restitution after being convicted in the 2001 death of tow-truck driver Tanner Rothfleisch. Courtesy photo

What will it take to keep repeat DUI offenders such as Denise Gafner Mendoza off the road?

Longer prison sentences? More intensive counseling and treatment of addiction? Permanent revocation of drivers licenses? Ignition devices that detect when a driver is too drunk to drive? Or a combination of all of those?

We don’t have the answer. We wish we did, because cases like the one described by Tribune reporter Patrick Pemberton are absolutely chilling.

To recap, Mendoza pleaded no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter after she struck and killed a 20-year-old tow truck driver, Tanner Rothfleisch, in 2001. He was helping a disabled motorist on the Cuesta Grade, when Mendoza, who was under the influence of painkillers, swerved into him, killing him instantly. At the time of the crash, Mendoza was on probation for a 1999 DUI.

She was sentenced to prison for the manslaughter conviction, but following her release, she racked up another DUI and was ordered to spend another year behind bars. Now, she’s facing yet another DUI charge. She told authorities she had been taking prescription drugs.

Given her record, it’s a miracle that Mendoza hasn’t killed or injured anyone else.

What’s more, there are many other impaired drivers on the roads, under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

In a 2010 study, the National Transportation Safety Board reported “hard core drinking drivers” — defined as motorists who are repeat offenders and/or have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more at the time of arrest — are involved in more than 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities and 22 percent of all highway deaths.

Efforts are underway to bring those numbers down. Perhaps most notable are advances in technology, including the ignition interlock devices on cars that operate like a breathalyzer. If test readings are too high, the car won’t start.

Many states mandate drivers with DUI convictions have the devices installed if they want to resume driv-It’s not mandatory throughout California, though a pilot program is underway in four counties. State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) plans to re-introduce a bill in the upcoming session that would make ignition locks a statewide requirement following a second DUI conviction. We fully support that, but it’s not a perfect solution.

For one, what’s to stop the driver from borrowing a car?

Also, the equipment won’t prevent motorists from driving under the influence of drugs.

Revoking or suspending licenses for long periods of time isn’t a perfect solution, either, because many will simply drive without a license. The National Transportation Safety Board has estimated that between 50 percent and 70 percent of DUI offenders continue to drive after their licenses are suspended — without insurance.

That said, some cases are so egregious that it would be aperversion of justice to restore a driver’s license after a year or two or three.

There is a new California law that took effect in January 2012, sponsored by Hill, that authorizes judges to revoke licenses of drivers with three or more DUI convictions for up to 10 years, instead of three.

However, so far, judges have rarely exercised the 10-year option. According to Hill’s office, approximately 8,000 to 9,000 California drivers were convicted of their third or more DUI over the past couple of years. The DMV estimates that judges suspended licenses for the full 10-year period less than 1 percent of the time. We understand that each case must be weighed individually, but we find it hard to believe that the 10-year revocation is used so infrequently.

Clearly, a stronger approach is needed. We urge prosecutors to argue strenuously for the 10-year revocation when warranted, as it seems to be in the Mendoza case.

We also strongly urge the California Legislature to take another step toward making our roads safer by making passage of Sen. Hill’s ignition lock bill a priority.