Wrong Side of the Road, Wrong Side of the Law

Jessica Lynn Shekell was a 21-year old and a sociology major at California State University at Fullerton in 2009. In the wee hours of October 26th of that year, she was driving in the wrong direction on a stretch of the 91 freeway in Anaheim. Shekell’s Toyota pick-up truck crashed head-on into a Chevy’s pick-up truck. The results: Sally Miguel and Patricia Miguel (two sisters in the front of the Chevy’s pickup truck) were dead and their two young nieces (Mary Miguel and Sara Miguel) suffered permanent internal injuries. The lessons? Avoid being on the wrong side of the road and being on the wrong side of the law. With drinking and driving, only do one of them. Some actions in life have grave consequences. Alcohol imparied driving is one of them.

Approximately 45 minutes after the crash, Shekell’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.26 percent, three times over the legal limit (0.08 percent in all 50 states). This meant that the BAC at the time of crash would be higher. According to the BAC calculator of the Police Department of the University of Oklahoma, for someone weighing 120 pounds, two hours after drinking eight 8-oz beers, the estimated BAC is only 0.21 percent (Shekell’s weight was 115 pounds at the time of the crash). The same calculator estimates that drinking eight margarita will result in a BAC of 0.24 percent. Shekell likely had many more drinks than eight. On the night of the DUI crash, Shekell and her friends were drinking at two bars in Placentia, California for several hours.

Shekell was sentenced on Wednesday March 9 to six years for the DUI crash. The prosection asked for 13 years. The defense asked for probation (nice try). Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald picked the middle point. Is the justice served? In my view, a stiffer sentence is called for.

Interestingly, on the night of the crash, Shekell was not yet 21 years of age (less than two months away from her 21st birthday on December 12). So she was not of legal drinking. According to the prosecutor Susan Price, Shekell was also cited for underage drinking in 2009.

Prior to sentencing, Judge Robert Fitzgerald sent Shekell to a 90-day diagnostic program operated by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, during which she denied being an alcoholic. When the program was over, officials recommended she be sent to prison. Was it that Shekell was not showing remorse to the the satisfaction of the officials in the diagnostic program? It seems clear that she denied she had an alcohol problem.

Two lives were snuffed out by someone who denied having an alcohol problem. Six years do not seem fair to the victims’ family. Both nieces of the victims suffered permanent injuries in their bodies, having to deal with gaping physical and emotional wounds for the rest of their lives.

Another lesson from this crash is that wearing seatbelt can save lives. The victims in this crash did not wear seatbelts. In my view, this does not lessen the gravity of the crime committed by Shekell. On the other hand, even with wearing seatbelts, the victims would still sustain serious and likely debilitating injuries. With or without seatbelts, it is a no win situation for the victims.

If Shekell has any shred of decency in her bones, she will have to deal with the weight of this tragedy for the rest of her life. At least she will be out of prison before her 30th birthday. Sally and Patricia Miguel are gone forever. In comparison, Shekell’s prospect seems quite good.

Justice aside, it is also not a good situation for Shekell. She was hospitalized for facial trauma and fractures to both arms. Any normal person will have to grapple with the enormous guilt from murdering two people. Though she got a light sentence, she still have to spend six years in a state prison, which could be put to other productive uses. She could finish school and start a career. Any plans she had before the crash will have to wait until she turns 30. Shekell surely had put her family through much anguish. Think of the legal costs her family had to shell out.

For all those who drink and drive, think about this. If you do not care about the victims, you ought to at least care about your future and your family. I sure do hope that the drinking buddies of Shekell on the night of October 26, 2009 had learned this lesson too.

It is really simple. If you get plastered, do not get behind the wheel.

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Hope there will be no lottery winners this New Year’s Eve

According to a report in npr.org called Road Fatalities Dip Thanks To Safer Cars, Economy, an array of factors are making the road safer. According to a study by the Department of Transportation, the overall number of fatality on American roads has dropped dramatically, fallen by over 20% in the last few years. Two likely reasons for this dramatic drop are safer cars and a slower economy. However, even with the over 20% drop in fatality on the road, there is still one death every 15 minutes on the road.

I always think of dying from a crash involving a drunk driver is a lottery. It is a negative lottery for sure since no one would want to win it. In a previous post (The lottery of drunk driving fatality), I discussed the statistic of one drunk driving fatality every 45 minutes. By comparison, the number of deaths on the roads due to all causes is three times higher than just deaths from drunk driving (in the lottery analogy it is three times more likely to win)! I hope in this holiday season, no one will win this negative lottery.

Be safe on the road. Between drinking and driving, only do one of them!

Now the quantitative stuff. As reported in Road Fatalities Dip Thanks To Safer Cars, Economy, there were almost 44,000 road-related deaths in 2005. In 2009, there were about 34,000 deaths. This is a 22% decrease. There are two ways to see this.

One is to calculate the number of reduction in deaths, which is 44000-34000=10000. Then divide 10000 by 44000. We have:

\displaystyle \frac{10000}{44000}=0.2273, which is 22.73%.

Another way to derive the 22.73% is to calculate the following ratio:

\displaystyle \frac{34000}{44000}=0.7727

Then subtract one from this ratio and obtain 0.7727-1=-0.2273, which indicates a 22.73% decrease in road-related deaths.

The 2009 figure for the number of road-related deaths is 34,000. This comes out to be one death every 15 minutes. To derive this rate, we need to calculate the total number of minutes in a year. There are 365 x 24 x 60 = 525,600 minutes in a year. Then divide 525,600 by 44,000 to obtain 15.46 minutes. Then round the answer to 15 minutes.

We can get a perspective of this calculation by looking at an example of taking an exam. For example, if you have two hours (120 minutes) to take an exam and the exam has 10 problems, then on average you have 12 minutes to work one problem. Thus if you can work one problem per 12 minutes, you can expect to finish the exam in the allotted time.

Back to the calculation at hand, there are 525,600 minutes in a year and there are 34,000 events. Thus on average there are 15 minutes allotted for each event.

\displaystyle \frac{365 \times 24 \times 60}{34000}=15.46=15

The hope is that the denominator in the above ratio will keep getting smaller in the years to come. From 2005 to 2009, the denominator shrank from 44,000 to 34,000. I have a thought. Supose that in the next 5 years (2009 to 2013), there will be the same percent decrease in the road-related deaths as in the 5-year period from 2005 to 2009. What will be the value of the denominator? In other words, according to the same trend line, what will be the number of road-related deaths in 2013?

The answer to the above question is obtained by reducing the 34,000 deaths in 2009 by 22.73%. Try the following:

\displaystyle 34000 \times (1-0.2273) = 34000 \times 0.7727=26271.8

If the same trend that played out between 2005 and 2009 holds, the projection for 2013 would be about 26,000. Whether this is a realistic projection or not, I do not know. I will leave this to the experts who study traffic fatality. Let’s hope that the improvement will be as least no worse than this projection.

The lottery of drunk driving fatality

Several years ago, I read of a news account of a mother driving with her infant son in a minivan. A drunk driver was driving on the same freeway but in the wrong direction and collided with the minivan. The mother died upon impact. Amazingly the infant survived. News accounts like this one are always heart wrenching.

I always think of dying from a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver is a lottery. It is a negative lottery for sure since no one would want to win it. Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two of his friends were the unfortunate “winners” of this negative lottery in 2009.

What are the odds of winning this negative lottery? How often is this negative lottery “won”? Let’s compare the number of drunk driving deaths with the number of winning Lotto tickets that pay out $1 million or more. The comparison is done on an annual basis and as a rate per certain number of minutes. It turns out that winning this negative lottery is far more frequent than winning the Lotto. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious problem. The numerical data presented here bear that out.

Drivers are considered to be alcohol-impaired when their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Thus any fatality occurring in a crash involving a driver with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is considered to be an alcohol-impaired driving fatality. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one alcohol-impaired driving fatality occurs every 45 minutes (see note 1 at the end of the post). This rate of occurrence is derived from the fact that in 2008, 11,773 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes.

What is the total number of Lotto winners in a year? Here, we only focus on the winning prizes of $1 million or more. Would the number of Lotto winners approaches 11,773 in a year? I do not think so. I hunted for data from the website of the California Lotto, I found that as of today’s date, there are only 247 winning tickets that pay out $1 million or more since the inception of the California state lotto in 1985. So in 25 years, there are only about 250 winners in the state of California. Thus on average there are only about 10 “million dollar plus” Lotto winners a year in California.

Multiplying across the 50 states in the United States, the total number of “million dollar plus” Lotto winners should be no more than 500 in a year. This should be a pretty conservative estimate since California is the largest state in the country (with the largest population). Not all 50 states in the country have Lotto. Some states do not have their own Lotto and are part of a multi-state Lotto. So 500 is a good upper bound on the total number of “million dollar plus” Lotto winners in a year.

With 500 winners a year, there is one “million dollar plus” Lotto winner every 1050 minutes (see note 2). Or one winner in every 17.5 hours (see note 2). Thus alcohol-impaired driving deaths occur at least 23 times more frequently (one death per 45 minutes vs. one per at least 1050 minutes).

Of the 11,773 alcohol-impaired driving deaths in 2008, how many of them were the drunk drivers? According to a report from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency within the Department of Transportation, we have the following breakdown of the drunk driving fatality in 2008.

\displaystyle \begin{pmatrix} \text{Role}&\text{Number}&\text{Percent of Total} \\{\text{ }}&\text{ }&\text{ } \\\text{Driver With BAC=0.08+}&8,027&\text{68 percent} \\\text{Passenger Riding w/Driver With BAC=0.08+}&1,875&\text{16 percent} \\\text{Occupants of Other vehicles}&1,179&\text{10 percent} \\\text{Nonoccupants}&692&\text{6 percent} \\{\text{ }}&\text{ }&\text{ } \\{\text{Total Fatalities}}&11,773&\text{100 percent}\end{pmatrix}

Most of the deaths were self-inflicted (68%). According to the same report, 216 of the 1,875 deaths in the above table were children. The group of 2,087 (=216+1,179+692) were truly victims and their deaths were senseless. Angels pictcher Nick Adenhart and the mother mentioned at the beginning belong to this group. They did not do anything wrong and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If we just focus on this group of children riding with the drunk drivers and the occupants of other vehicles and nonoccupants, the rate of occurence is still pretty high (one fatality every 252 minutes; see note 3). That comes up to be about one fatality every 4.2 hours (see note 3). Focusing on this group alone, the rate of drunk driving fatalities is over 4 times higher than winning the Lotto (one death per 252 minutes vs. one winner per at least 1050 minutes).

Eliminating the category of fatality represented by these 2,087 senseless deaths would drive down the rate of fatality and would go a long way to address the problem of drunk driving. Though this would be only modest improvement, it would be a step in the right direction.

*************

Note 1
To derive the rate of one death per 45 minutes, we need to calculate the total number of minutes in a year. There are 365 x 24 x 60 = 525,600 minutes in a year. Then divide 525,600 by 11,773 to obtain 44.64 minutes = 45 minuties.

We can get a perspective of this calculation by looking at an example of taking an exam. For example, if you have two hours (120 minutes) to take an exam and the exam has 10 problems, then on average you have 12 minutes to work one problem. Thus if you can work one problem per 12 minutes, you can expect to finish the exam in the allotted time.

Back to the alcohol impaired driving situation, there are 525,600 minutes in a year and there are 11,773 events. Thus on average there are 45 minutes allotted for each event.

\displaystyle \frac{365 \times 24 \times 60}{11,773}=44.64 = 45 \text{ minutes}

Note 2

\displaystyle \frac{365 \times 24 \times 60}{500}=1051.2 = 1050 \text{ minutes}

\displaystyle \frac{1050}{60}= 17.5 \text{ hours}

Note 3

\displaystyle \frac{365 \times 24 \times 60}{2087}= 252 \text{ minutes}

\displaystyle \frac{252}{60}= 4.2 \text{ hours}