Authorities: 2021 worst year on record for DUI fatalities in San Diego County

Two passengers were killed in a suspected DUI crash in La Jolla last year.
(OnScene TV )

DUI crashes have killed 35 people in San Diego County so far this year


Crashes involving intoxicated drivers have claimed 35 lives in San Diego County so far this year, setting what authorities on Wednesday, Oct. 6, called a “grisly” record.

The figure represents the most DUI deaths in a year since the county began collecting data two decades ago, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

The county had set a record last year at 33 fatalities. That was despite bars being closed and fewer vehicles traveling on roads because of COVID-19 shutdowns. In 2019, the county recorded 18 deaths.

District Attorney Summer Stephan and law enforcement leaders from around the county held a news conference outside the San Diego County Administration Center to raise awareness of the issue. They highlighted other alarming trends, too.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Theresa Adams-Hydar said the average blood-alcohol content among DUI drivers countywide has slightly increased from .168 percent last year to .18 percent this year. Motorists in California are considered legally impaired at .08 percent or higher.

Stephan said more than half of DUI drivers this year have had a combination of alcohol and another substance in their system. Among those cases, 30 percent involved cannabis.

“Drivers know the risks and the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, yet it seems more than ever that they’re being reckless and they are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives,” Stephan said.

Adams-Hydar said the Sheriff’s Department logged 296 DUI crashes from January to September and predicted that the agency could record close to 400 by the end of the year — a “marked increase” from 380 DUI crashes last year and 358 in 2019.

Stephan had some good news: While fatalities are up, the overall number of DUI-related crashes — most of them non-fatal — is down. Prosecutors saw about 396 DUI cases involving injuries or fatalities last year, a 12 percent decrease from 445 cases in 2019. Overall, they handled a total of 5,130 DUI crashes last year, a 55 percent decrease from 9,400 cases in 2019.

Stephan said her office and law enforcement agencies plan to use a $530,600 state grant to crack down on DUIs by way of checkpoints, saturation patrols and prosecutions. They also plan to educate the public about the dangers of impaired driving.

“We take DUI and drugged driving very seriously,” said California Highway Patrol Capt. Charles Leonard, who oversees the agency’s office in North County.

Leonard encouraged the public to rely on designated drivers and ride-sharing services.

“Working together we will do what we can to stop drunk or drugged drivers from killing our innocent family members, our neighbors and our friends,” Stephan said.

She called on the public to take a pledge to not drive if they drink or consume substances, including marijuana, and to stop others from driving under the influence of alcohol or a substance.

This year’s grant is the eighth the District Attorney’s Office has received from the Office of Traffic Safety. The state agency has awarded the District Attorney’s Office more than $3.2 million in grants in recent years.

Fatal DUI crash cases are handled by the District Attorney’s DUI Homicide Unit, which is made up of a specialized team of prosecutors and investigators. DUI crashes across the county are investigated as murders — as opposed to deadly DUI crashes — “because this isn’t an accident,” Stephan said. “It is purposeful behavior that ends up with innocent people losing their lives.”

Since the unit was created in 2014, it has prosecuted more than 170 cases, according to the the District Attorney’s Office.