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Motorists are warned to use a designated driver on New Year's Eve

Over the course of more than nine years as a police officer, Jeff Christensen figures he has arrested more than 500 people for drunken driving. Many of these arrests come in summer months, as well as over the holidays.

So who is the typical drunken driver? That's difficult to say, but they can be anybody and everybody, said Christensen, a Merced Police Department Traffic Division officer who is the public affairs officer for the "Avoid the 11" campaign involving all law enforcement agencies in Merced County.

"It's not the same criminal element like gang members, burglars and thieves," Christensen said. "Drunken drivers can be soccer moms, somebody you would send your kids over to your friend's house."

The diversity of those arrested for driving under the influence shows that anybody can make bad choices, Christensen said. Typically those arrested thought they were OK and say they didn't think they had enough to drink to be considered drunk.

Dayna De Jong is a brand-new Merced police officer now undergoing training with Christensen. She has already arrested two people for drunken driving, both involved in traffic accidents.

In one instance, a woman driving a minivan ran a red traffic light on M Street at 4 p.m. and hit a car making a left turn. Her blood-alcohol content was 0.22; a reading of 0.08 or higher is presumed to be under the influence.

De Jong said both of her DUI arrests were handed to her by virtue of the accidents. But she doesn't doubt she will encounter drunks when she goes on patrol on her own.

Christensen, a Merced officer for three years who was a patrolman in Los Banos for five years and an officer for a year and a half in Irvine, said he has almost been hit by drunken drivers several times. He averages about 80 drunken driving arrests a year.

He urged motorists who see someone driving erratically to call 911 and report the inebriate. If using a cell phone, they should report the license number, description of the vehicle, location and direction of travel. They should make sure to keep a safe distance from the possible drunk, not get involved and wait until police get on the scene.

There are tips in spotting drunken drivers, Christensen said. They typically speed, follow too close, make wide turns or drive at least 10 mph under the speed limit.

One driver he arrested in Los Banos had a blood-alcohol reading of 0.42; ironically he performed better on the field sobriety test than someone with a much lower reading.

The "Avoid the 11" campaign involves Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos, Gustine and Dos Palos police departments, the Merced County Sheriff's Department, California Highway Patrol, UC Merced and Merced College police departments and probation officers.

On Sunday night, the countywide DUI task force was deploying 10 extra patrol units in Merced and Atwater in search of drunken drivers. In the first two weekends of the stepped-up enforcement, 57 people were arrested on DUI charges.

Many county law enforcement agencies plan saturation patrols tonight, New Year's Eve, which is typically a heavy night for drinking and driving. The CHP has a Maximum Enforcement Period through 11:59 p.m. New Year's Day. Both the CHP and local police agencies are using grants from the California Office of Traffic Safety to pay for officer overtime to catch drunks.

Last year 38 people were killed on California roadways during the New Year's holiday. Thirty-three people died in statewide accidents over the Christmas holiday.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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