Mississippi Sees Rise in Women Charged with Drunk Driving

October 20, 2009

After having drinks with friends one night, Kristina Tanner left in her car to buy someone a pack of cigarettes.

On the way back, she was arrested for DUI — her second drunken-driving arrest within a year.

“When you get No. 2, it shows you didn’t learn anything from the first one,” said Tanner, 23, of Pearl.

Now she has learned this: After almost a year of staying “clean and sober,” she said, “the one thing that sticks with me is all the trouble I’ve gotten into for one night of fun.”

“I could have killed someone. I could have killed myself.”

A growing number of women may have to learn that lesson the hard way: DUI arrests for them rose by nearly 30 percent nationwide, according to a recent study.

Mississippi women are no exception, as figures compiled by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety show a leap in numbers and percentages.

That trend hit home in the high-profile case of Karen Irby of Jackson — indicted on two counts of depraved-heart murder in May in the deaths of Dr. Daniel Mark Pogue and his fiancee, Dr. Lisa Dedousis.

They were killed in a crash on Feb. 11; prosecutors say evidence shows Irby was driving under the influence when her car smashed into Pogue’s pickup.

In another case, Darlena Mickel of Hattiesburg was charged with driving under the influence, causing a death after 2-year-old Jason Kelly Jr., an unrestrained passenger in her SUV, died. Mickel lost control while traveling on U.S. 49 South, collided with the embankment and struck a utility pole on Sept. 2, police said.

“Women are catching up to men,” said Misty Moyse, spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Mississippi.

“Males are still arrested for DUI at a rate of 4 to 1 compared to women, but women are out and about more today. They’re often the caretakers and are driving with children. That’s obviously a big concern.”

The nationwide report on women and DUI, released in August by the U.S. Transportation Department, cites records from 1998-2007.

In Mississippi, MDPS numbers cover 1998-2008; they show that the percentage of women arrested for DUI rose every year but two.

In 1998, the percentage of DUI arrests for women was 12.11. In 2008, it was more than 17 percent.

For most years, including the last two, the numbers climbed. The total number of women arrested for DUI: 2,780 in 1998; 4,351 in 2008, a 56.5 percent jump.

“It looks like we’re reflecting the national trend,” said Ron Sennett, MDPS’ traffic records coordinator.

Two cities with high percentages are Brandon, at 27.7 percent in 2008 (compared to 1.9 percent in 1998), and Pearl, at 19.6 percent.

In Jackson, the percentage of women arrested for DUI since 1998 has been up and down; it peaked in 2006 at 18.2 percent and dropped to 15.1 percent last year.

“This hasn’t been on our radar,” said Tyrone Lewis, interim chief for the Jackson Police Department. “To us, a DUI is a DUI, regardless of gender.

“But it does raise a question that should possibly be looked at,” he said, referring to the statewide trend.

Apparently, there is no conclusive explanation for the DUI spike among women.

Research from Washington University in St. Louis shows that 39 percent of young women indulged in binge drinking, having five or more drinks, in 2006.

Why women of all ages may be drinking and driving more is not clear. One theory says women are under more stress and pressure than ever.

“That idea deserves more attention and research,” said Julie Schumacher, associate professor in the University Mississippi Medical Center’s Addiction Research and Treatment Laboratory.

“At this point, I don’t see the data supporting that. It was going on before, but more of it was under the radar.”

For Tanner, the pressure of expectations is not a theory.

“Alcohol gives you that liquid confidence,” she said. “I’m supposed to be the perfect employee, the perfect daughter. Those expectations I put on myself are so high, they are impossible. When I was drinking, it was like I was able to finally take a breath.”

This raises a question, said Chandra Persaud, assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi Valley State University: “Has the women’s rights movement caused women to be equal in more senses than they bargained for?

“Still, it may not be that women are drinking more; it may be that it’s coming to the attention of law enforcement more.

“And there may be more women in law enforcement catching people with DUIs.”

Which brings up a similar point raised by Etta Morgan, assistant professor in Jackson State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology: “Police officers may be enforcing the laws more strictly,” she said

Female drivers who used to get a break may not be getting one anymore.

Another theory blames it, in part, on biology.

“Compared to men, a smaller quantity of alcohol will give women a blood alcohol concentration that is over the legal limit,” Schumacher said.

“Changing that legal limit may contribute to more women being arrested.”

In 2003, Mississippi’s legal blood-alcohol limit dropped to 0.08 percent.

That may have had an impact. Among 22 Jackson metro-area law enforcement agencies, the number of women arrested for DUI jumped from 346 to 464 between 2002 and 2003, a 34 percent spike.

Still, across Mississippi, the total number of DUI arrests for men and women fell during that same period, although the percentage for women climbed by one point.

In Brandon, the number of women arrested for DUI shot up from two to 69 between 1998 and 2008. Police Chief Ken McBroom said he couldn’t say for sure why that is so.

“It could be that women’s bodies just can’t hold as much alcohol as men’s,” he said. “It may be that men are making the women drive them home when they’ve both been out drinking.”

And it may also be that women are lured by sweet drinks and marketing, said Trisha Hinson of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

“The bad taste of alcohol has been replaced with something flavorful: wine coolers, hard lemonade, fruit-flavored vodka. I believe women are susceptible to that,” she said.

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