Drinking and Driving Plagues Latino Immigrants

Latino advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies have launched campaigns to reduce drunk driving among immigrants. In many states, Latinos are responsible for a disproportionate number of DWI arrests and alcohol-related car accidents.

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The influx of Hispanic immigrants to some parts of the U.S. has led to a problem on the highways. In many states, Hispanics account for a disproportionate number of drunk driving deaths. In North Carolina where the Latino population has grown by more than a third in this decade, alcohol-related crashes have become a leading killer of Latinos. And as NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, community groups are trying to reverse that trend.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

When Hispanic restaurant and grocery owners gathered for a seminar this week in Durham, North Carolina, the lesson of the day was (Spanish language spoken): be a responsible seller of alcohol.

Unidentified Man: How many of you own the tiendas or work in the tiendas? All right, this is for you.

HOCHBERG: This class at Hispanic community center was conducted by a state alcohol law enforcement agent. As the business owners wore headphones to listen to a Spanish translator, officer Keith Patterson briefed them on alcohol laws and how to tell when a customer has had too much.

Mr. KEITH PATTERSON (Police Officer, Durham, North Carolina): If someone is walking around in a restaurant or walking in a bar, you definitely want to be observant and notice the way they walk, making sure they're not swaying or swaggering, or stumbling and bumping into things.

HOCHBERG: Agents like Patterson have taught classes in English for decades, but only this summer has the curriculum been translated into Spanish, reflecting the growing number of Hispanic businesses in North Carolina, and the growing problem with alcohol in the state's Hispanic community.

Grocery store owner Manuel Gonzales, observes the problem first hand among his customers.

Mr. MANUEL GONZALES (Store Owner): Oh, yeah, I see it many times, almost everyday. They come and buy beers and just driving and drink at the same time. You know, when they driving. I try to explain to don't drive and drink, but they keep on doing it.

HOCHBERG: Nationwide, Latinos rank second only to Native Americans and their alcohol death rate on the highway. The extent of the problem varies from state to state, but community leaders say it seems worse in places where Latinos have newly immigrated. At Al Pueblo, a Hispanic advocacy group in North Carolina, safety director Tony Ascion(ph) says Latino drunk drivers tend to be young men in the U.S. without their families, people who have a lot of free time and a lot of what Ascion calls, machismo.

Mr. TONY ASCION (Safety Director, Al Pueblo): The machismo thing is when you say if I don't drive, I'm basically letting everybody know that I can't handle my liquor, and if I can't handle my liquor, I'm not much of a man - and so I have to drink and drive. And that is something that I think education will take care of.

Unidentified Woman (Spanish Spoken)

HOCHBERG: Ascion's group is sponsoring these public service announcements on Spanish radio stations, with a grieving mother who lost her son in an alcohol related accident. Other agencies, including the State Highway Patrol, are passing out educational brochures at Hispanic events. Meanwhile, a member of North Carolina's congressional delegation is taking harder line on the issue.

Republican Sue Myrick pushed an amendment through the House to automatically deport drunk drivers who are undocumented.

Representative SUE MYRICK (Republican, North Carolina): I hope it sends a message that you obey the laws in the United States, and the laws are you don't drive drunk.

HOCHBERG: Myrick introduced her legislation after a repeated drunk driver, an illegal Mexican immigrant, caused a fatal accident in her district. And while the measure's fate in Congress remains uncertain, Myrick says there's widespread anger in North Carolina about the issue. Indeed, many Hispanic leaders worry alcohol not only is costing lives on the highway, but also is harming their community's image at a time when immigration already is a divisive subject.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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