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No One Seems To Care About Drunken Driving

Ray Quintanilla

November 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- While I was waiting inside a gas-station convenience store one afternoon, this conversation between a patron and a cashier struck me as shocking. It should be alarming to anyone worried about motorists impaired by alcohol.

Customer: "You sell beer?"

Cashier: "Yes, it's in the cooler in the back."

Customer: "No, I don't want a 12-pack. I just want one beer."

Cashier: "Oh, those are in the other cooler. There, along the side wall."

Customer: "I'll take two Heinekens. Nah, make that five of them; the ones sold individually. I'm driving to Caguas [about 15 miles away, or with traffic about 45 minutes] so the bottles would be easier for me to handle."

Cashier: "You want me to open them for you?"

Customer: "Yes. Thank you. Open three of them, and I'll open the others on my own."

Cashier: "All right, here you go. Have a great day!"

Who knows if the kid, looking only days over Puerto Rico's legal drinking age of 18, made it to Caguas in one piece. Or, worse yet, caused a crash that killed someone.

You can bet he was sipping beer behind the wheel of his "pimped" 1988 Toyota Celica equipped with thick tires, a spoiler and sporty chrome rims.

This much, however, is a safe bet: Quickie-mart cashiers are opening beers -- and bottles of those new fruity-tasting alcoholic beverages -- for patrons just like him all across Puerto Rico.

When asked why she opened the beer bottles for the teen, when it's illegal to drive and drink alcoholic beverages, the cashier told me it was a local custom.

"It's service for the customer. It's a courtesy that's done across the island," she explained, walking over to a refrigerator packed with hundreds of single bottles of alcoholic beverages. "My manager says it's good for business."

Perhaps that's one of the reasons 250 people will die on the island's roads this year in connection with impaired motorists, according to the island's Traffic Safety Commission.

Puerto Rico has among the highest rates of highway deaths linked to alcohol, according to a 2002 trend study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- research that's still the most comprehensive look at the problem in decades.

It showed the number of deaths linked to impaired drivers, per miles traveled, was higher in Puerto Rico than most states -- including places such as New York and Florida.

Dennis E. Utter, NHTSA's acting director for the Office of Traffic Records and Analysis, said those trends haven't changed much. "They've been pretty flat," he explained.

Concern about the problem on the island has also been flat.

There's been nary a peep from the Legislature to address the problem. Much of its time, in recent months, has been tied up trying to solve the island's rampant crime problem.

But one only has to go as far as the corner gas station to see the island's problem with impaired motorists isn't getting the attention it deserves.

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