DUI fatalities an ongoing problem in 24-hour town

LAS VEGAS - It's a 24-hour town with a 24-hour tap. They never stop pouring the booze in Las Vegas, which means many come pouring out onto the streets in no shape to drive.

The number of DUI arrests is holding steady in the Las Vegas Valley. But the figures belie the emotional toll imposed by a series of crashes that have grabbed headlines in recent months, leaving 12 people dead and many calling for tougher DUI laws.

A Megabucks winner is receiving lengthy rehabilitation and her sister is dead after their car was rear-ended by a driver with a long history of driving under the influence.

Six teens on a highway cleanup crew are dead after an exotic dancer charged with DUI fell asleep and ran off the freeway.

Another exotic dancer is charged with DUI after driving onto the sidewalk in front of a Strip resort, mowing down a group of tourists - killing one.

And a man is charged with DUI after his truck plowed into a car killing four, including an unborn baby.

Stewart Bell, Clark County District Attorney, said he hopes the tragedies can have some positive effect.

''The fact we've had a number of high-profile cases, hopefully, will be a wake-up call to the public that this kind of conduct cannot occur,'' Bell said.

Sandy Heverly, head of the Stop DUI organization, is concerned that Las Vegas' ''anything goes'' mentality generates more problems with drunken driving.

''I think there's a mindset, the perception by people who move here, that anything goes, including drinking and driving,'' said Heverly. Her family nearly was killed in 1974 when a drunken driver traveling at 65 mph hit their camper at a local intersection.

''Given the atmosphere in Nevada in general and Las Vegas in particular, I think it's incumbent on us to have the toughest DUI laws in the country,'' Heverly said.

Bell believes Nevada has good laws on the books.

''The DUI groups have worked hard through the years to give law enforcement laws to take drunk drivers off the road,'' Bell said.

Despite the tragedies that grab the headlines, Bell thinks Nevada is gaining in its battle against DUI drivers.

Nevada had 11,913 DUI arrests in 1999, down from 12,196 in 1998 but up from 10,939 in 1993. By comparison, the state's population jumped 50 percent in the '90s, to the current 1.8 million.

In 1999, Southern Nevada jurisdictions accounted for 4,176 of the DUI arrests. That doesn't include arrests by the Nevada Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol recorded 3,866 DUI arrests statewide, but the figures are not broken down by region.

Figures from the Office of Traffic Safety at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety show that Clark County had 195 traffic fatalities in 1999 out of 350 statewide. Of those, there were 69 alcohol- involved fatalities in the county, 129 statewide.

In 1993, the state reported 263 fatalities, with 142 of them in Clark County. Of that number, 103 were alcohol-related, with 55 of those in Clark County.

''The problem is that every time somebody drives intoxicated, they're taking their lives and the lives of everyone else on the road in their hands,'' Bell said. ''In a way it's just sheer luck when you don't have a fatality, bad luck when you do have one.''

Heverly believes that, for some, there are no laws tough enough to deter drunken drivers.

''There's a certain segment of our society that has no respect for human life or the law,'' Heverly said. ''It doesn't matter what the penalty or driver education efforts. They just don't care.''

Bell believes Clark Morse, 57, fits that category.

Morse had at least 16 prior arrests on DUI charges the night of March 11 when his vehicle slammed into a car waiting a a red light at a busy Las Vegas intersection.

The crash killed Lela Sue Jay, 45, and left her sister, Cynthia Jay-Brennan, 37, with crippling spinal injuries. Jay-Brennan, who had won a $34.9 million Megabucks jackpot in January, is still undergoing rehabilitation at a Denver hospital.

''Clark Morris has had every opportunity the system could afford and then some,'' Bell said. ''All those opportunities notwithstanding he had an accident that killed a citizen and badly injured another. We will take the strongest position possible against Clark Morse.

''It appears the only way to keep Clark Morse off the highways is to seek a sentence that will guarantee that he will never hurt anybody again.''

Heverly wants to see Nevada's blood-alcohol standard changed to lower the DUI level from 0.10 to 0.08 and increase the criminal charges for a DUI death to second-degree murder, punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

''We believe it's murder at random and would not want it to be probational,'' she said of DUI fatalities.

''At 0.10 you have a 300 percent chance of being involved in a fatal crash,'' Heverly said, referring to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ''By reducing it to one drink less, or 0.08, it reduces your fatal crash risk to 160 percent, almost cutting the risk in half.''

Las Vegas' 24/7 environment isn't helpful in battling DUI.

Jessica Williams, 21, a stripper at a local club, is being held on $5 million bail in the deaths of six teen-agers. She admitted to smoking marijuana two hours before her minivan slammed into a roadside work crew March 19.

Juanita Kim McDonald, 25, also an exotic dancer, is accused of driving onto a sidewalk in front of the Aladdin Hotel a month later, injuring six tourists walking along the Strip. One of the tourists died three weeks later.

Michael Pickett, 24, is being held on $4 million bail on charges he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.22 when his pickup truck slammed into a car stopped for a red light. Four people, including a baby delivered by Caesarean section after the accident, died from the crash.

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