Drunk Driving-Ain't Nobody Got Time For That

By: Jorge De La Cruz – Advanced Reporting

Life could not have been better for Sylvia Rodriguez in the early 1990s. She was happily married, had four children, and a good job.

Twenty years later, the Lubbock Victim’s Assistance Services spokeswoman reflects back on what happened the night of September 21, 1990, the night her life changed forever.

“I went out with my cousin to have a few drinks and to go dancing but I never made it back home,” Rodriguez said.

While driving west on Fourth Street, Rodriguez’s car crashed with another car. She woke up in the intensive care unit knowing she had been involved in a wreck.

“My sister came in and said, ‘Sylvia, that car wreck you were in, somebody died and you caused it. You killed somebody,’” Rodriguez said.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal read of the crash, “Man inside caught on fire and couldn’t get out.”

Rodriguez said the hardest thing for her was to accept the enormous pain she knew she caused that man’s family. She said she tried to apologize to the family on several occasions but was rejected every time.

Rodriguez’s case went to trial and she was found guilty for involuntary manslaughter and received a five-year prison sentence.

“My attorney had assured me I would only get probation due to my clean record,” Rodriguez said. “Once the decision was made, I just started crying because I knew I wouldn’t be with my kids in a long time.”

Rodriguez spent six months in the Lubbock County Jail before being transferred to the women’s prison in Gatesville, Texas. Even there, Rodriguez said she sent several letters to the man’s family asking to one day be forgiven for her actions.

After spending two years in prison, Rodriguez was released for good conduct as she hoped to move on with her life. One thing she did not account for was the permanent convicted-felon record she will have for the rest of her life.

“I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Nobody is going to hire a convicted felon, and if someone did, the job did not last very long,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez joined the Lubbock Victim’s Assistance Services, a non-profit organization in 1997, as a spokeswoman to talk about her experiences with alcohol and to help raise awareness to stop impaired and drunken driving.

Every month Rodriguez and other LVAS members speak at a victim impact panel held at the Lubbock County Courthouse to people convicted of alcohol-related incidents to abstain from drunken driving.

“I only drank three beers that night and I killed someone,” Rodriguez said. “I have been doing this for 13 years and I will continue because I feel this is my debt (to him) and if I can help someone I will.”

Pam Alexander, a Texas Tech graduate, is the founder and executive director of LVAS because one of her passions is to help crime victims, having been a victim herself almost 30 years ago.

“When I was going to Tech in my early 20s — someone broke into my home and approached me in my bedroom,” Alexander said. “Because I had neighbors that went to work early, when they started their cars, he (the burglar) got scared and ran away. He was in my home for 27 minutes but he didn’t rape me or hurt me.”

She said because no such organization existed to provide support for victims of crime, she decided to start one. Alexander gets a list of victims through email from the police department, and then contacts them to let them know the organization is available for anything they may need.

She conducts a victim impact panel program on a Tuesday evening of every month, a group therapy session where victims go share their stories, and DWI-convicted drivers are required to attend. This is where speakers such as Sylvia Rodriguez come share their experiences with alcohol.

“The main point of this program is to get a point across to these people that it is a choice to get behind the wheel of a car after they’ve been drinking,” Alexander said. “This program is mostly intended to change attitudes, so people won’t drink and drive anymore.”

The organization helps victims in Lubbock County and surrounding towns. Since LVAS is a non-profit organization, most of its funding comes from donations and grants from the state. The victim impact panel cost $40, and all that money goes to the organization’s fund.

“Drunken driving is a crime we can wipe out if everybody would pay attention to not drive if you’ve had a sip of any kind of alcohol,” Alexander said. “In 9/11, we lost 3500 people, drunken drivers is five times that per year.”

According to a collision statistical summary provided by the Public Information Officer of the Lubbock Police Department, Captain Gregory Stevens, there were 768 total wrecks in Lubbock County in January 2010. Stevens said that although speeding causes the majority of drunken driving crashes; others are just a failure to control speed.

“There is a law that says, ‘you have to control the speed of your vehicle,’ to avoid colliding with other vehicles that are legally on the road,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, you have to control the speed of your vehicle.”

Stevens said a common misconception many people have about car accidents and driving while intoxicated crashes is that they tend to think that speeding is always a factor, but under the law that is not necessarily the case. During the first six months of packaged-alcohol sales, Stevens said the police department saw a slight decrease in DWI occurrences, but to be certain the decrease is due to alcohol sales is almost impossible to tell.

“There is a decrease in occurrences but there could be more DWI that went undetected or we could have fewer DWI occurrences but more arrests,” Stevens said.

Six months is not a significant amount of time to tell whether DWI occurrences would remain at their rate, the only way to get a better understanding of the numbers is to conduct a 10-year study and compare the numbers to another period have a better perspective overall.

Stevens said the main reason why the police department did not anticipate an increase of DWI is because the alcohol ordinance only affected packaged sales and not bars or clubs.

“The vast majority that we arrest is not coming from purchasing packaged alcohol, they’re coming from purchasing alcohol by the drink,” Stevens said.

Stevens said that since he joined the force he has not seen a year where crime remained steady, it either goes up or down like the stock market, and law enforcement looks to adjust new strategies, manpower, realign resources, and equipment to find long-term solutions to crime.

“We’ll look at tenure and put all crimes in a per capita scale because of population growth, DWI and tragic fatalities caused by alcohol” Stevens said. “You see the specific areas to address and to develop a long-term strategy.”

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