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HOLIDAY WEEKEND TRAFFIC DEATHS DIP.

Byline: Anne Burke Daily News Staff Writer

Traffic fatalities in California during the four-day holiday weekend this year fell to their lowest point since the 1970s, but activists against drunk driving cautioned Monday not to read too much into the dip.

``The truth is that drunk driving is still a serious problem, and it's not going to go away,'' said Tina Pasco, director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Los Angeles County.

Thirty-two people were killed on California streets and highways from 6 p.m. Wednesday to midnight Sunday, seven fewer than the previous low during a four-day Christmas holiday in 1975, according to the California Highway Patrol.

CHP Sgt. Ernie Garcia attributed the decline to vigorous enforcement of drunk-driving laws and increased public awareness of the dangers of getting behind the wheel after drinking.

In California, about 40 percent of traffic fatalities are alcohol related, Pasco said.

But the drop in numbers likely was cold comfort for the families of two San Fernando Valley motorists who were killed during the Christmas holiday by drunk-driving suspects.

Michelle Pagan, 26, of Woodland Hills and Yetta Kleinberg, 89, of Van Nuys were among four motorists who died in Los Angeles County traffic collisions during the long holiday weekend.

Traffic fatalities during four-day Christmas holidays peaked in California in 1979, when 88 people were killed, up 49 from the previous 102-hour Christmas holiday.

In 1980, fatalities fell to 64, then dropped to 48 in 1984. In 1990, 53 people were killed.

During last year's 30-hour Christmas holiday period, there were eight traffic fatalities in California, but none in Los Angeles County, Garcia said.

Police say that stiffer penalties for drunk drivers is one factor behind the drop in fatalities.

In the 1970s, a first-time offender might walk away from a drunk-driving arrest with only a $240 fine, Garcia said.

Now, the first-time offender faces a minimum 96 hours in jail, possible license suspension, and $10,000 in costs, including fines, increased insurance rates, attorney fees, and lost time at work.

Heightened awareness about the dangers of drunk driving is evidenced by a sharp drop in arrests, Garcia said.

In the 1970s, CHP officers in California routinely made 125,000 or more drunk-driving arrests each year.

But last year, the CHP made about 92,000 DUI arrests in California, and the figure could drop slightly this year.

Pasco said she worries that publicity about fewer traffic fatalities and drunk-driving arrests will lull motorists into a false sense of complacency about the issue.

That's what she believes happened in 1995, when drunk-driving fatalities in the United States jumped by more than 600 deaths to 17,274, after a 10-year decline.

In 1996, nationwide drunk-driving fatalities decreased slightly, and Pasco hopes the trend continues this year.

``People are far more responsible. You hear more frequently about designated drivers, people saying, `I'm driving tonight, so I'm not drinking.' But we don't want people to become so relaxed that they think they can have a couple of glasses of wine and still get behind the wheel,'' Pasco said.

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Chart: Fewer fatalities
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Dec 30, 1997
Words:516
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