By Lisa A. Flam
NEW YORK The case of the mother who police said caused a deadly wrong-way crash while drunk and stoned is part of a disturbing trend: Women in the U.S. are drinking more, and drunken-driving arrests among women are rising rapidly while falling among men.
And some of those women, as in the New York case, are getting behind the wheel with kids in the back.
Men still drink more than women and are responsible for more drunken-driving cases. But the gap is narrowing. Among the reasons cited by researchers are that women are feeling greater pressures at work and home, they are driving more, and they are behaving more recklessly.
“Younger women feel more empowered, more equal to men, and have been beginning to exhibit the same uninhibited behaviors as men,” said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Another possible reason cited for the rising arrests: Police are less likely to let women off the hook these days.
Nationwide, the number of women arrested for driving under the influence or alcohol or drugs was 28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower, according to FBI figures that cover about 56 percent of the country. (Despite the incomplete sample, Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist, said the trend probably holds true for the country as a whole.)
“Women are picking up some of the dangerously bad habits of men,” said Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In New York's Westchester County, where Diane Schuler's crash killed her and seven other people last month, the number of women arrested for drunken driving is up 2 percent this year, and officers said they are noticing more women with children in the back seat.
“We realized for the last two to three years, the pattern of more female drivers, particularly mothers with kids in their cars, getting arrested for drunk driving,” said Tom Meier, director of Drug Prevention and Stop DWI for the county.
In one case there, a woman out clubbing with her teenage daughter was sent to prison for causing a wrong-way crash that killed her daughter's friend.
Another woman was charged with driving drunk after witnesses said she had been drinking all day before going to pick up her children at school. Authorities said the children were scared during the ride, and once they got home, they jumped out of the car, ran to a neighbor's house and told an adult, who called police. The mother lay passed out in the car, and police said her blood alcohol level was 0.27 percent — more than three times the legal limit.
Nearly 250 youngsters were killed in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. in 2007, and most were passengers in the car with the impaired driver, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.
The increase in arrests comes as women are drinking excessively more than in the past.
One federal study found that the number of women who reported abusing alcohol (having at least four drinks in a day) rose from 1.5 percent to 2.6 percent over the 10-year period that ended in 2002. For women ages 30 to 44, Schuler's age group, the number more than doubled, from 1.5 percent to 3.3 percent.
The problem has caught the attention of the federal government. The Transportation Department's annual crackdown on drunken driving, which begins later this month, will focus on women.
“There's the impression out there that drunk driving is strictly a male issue, and it is certainly not the case,” said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “There are a number of parts of the country where, in fact, the majority of impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes are female.”
Husband disputes alcohol cause
The husband of the New York woman who caused a car crash that killed her and seven others said Thursday she didn't have a drinking problem and suggested diabetes and other health problems were to blame.
“She was not a drinker. She was not an alcoholic,” Daniel Schuler said at a news conference with his sister and lawyer. “Something medically had to have happened.”
Schuler's attorney, Dominic Barbara, said the 36-year-old Cablevision executive had previously had gestational diabetes, had a suspicious bump on her leg and had an untreated mouth abscess before the deadly July 26 wreck.
“I think she had a stroke of some sort,” Barbara said. “From the stroke came all the other issues.”
Police say Schuler downed more than 10 vodkas and smoked marijuana before driving her minivan nearly two miles on the Taconic State Parkway and slamming head-on into a sport utility vehicle. Her 2-year-old daughter and three nieces were killed with her, along with three men in the SUV. Schuler's 5-year-old son survived.
Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the state's legal limit, and she had smoked pot as soon as 15 minutes before the crash, according to toxicology reports from the Westchester County medical examiner's office.
Daniel Schuler said that he had never seen his wife drunk since he met her, and that the couple went through a normal routine on the Sunday before he last saw her at a campsite in upstate New York.
“She was fine,” he said. “We had a cup of coffee in the morning, we packed the cars up like we always do and we headed out.” Associated Press