PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — The thought of his 1-year-old son being harmed in a drunk driving accident pushes Santa Monica Police Officer Hector Tavera to work harder at his job. That motivation is paying off.

Last year, Tavera brought in a total of 51 impaired drivers, the second highest tally in the department. The highest count belonged to fellow-Officer Jason Olson, who made a personal-high 59 arrests in 2008.

“Jason and I made a concerted effort to go out and concentrate on catching impaired drivers.” Tavera said, explaining that the two officers took a personal interest in cracking down on drivers who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. “The more arrests he would make, the more it motivated me to go out and be vigilant and work hard; it would motivate me to go out there and look for them.”

Tavera and Olson were recently honored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for their contributions to the SMPD’s overall number of arrests of drivers under the influence. They were acknowledged at MADD’s police recognition breakfast on March 19 along with other members of SMPD for its 159 DUI arrests on the year.

“Just these two officers arrested 110 drunk drivers,” said Tina Pasco, executive director of MADD Los Angeles. “MADD believes that every time a drunk driver is removed from the road, a life is saved. The citizens of Santa Monica were threatened by drunk drivers 110 times, and these officers protected them.”

Pasco elaborated, saying that Olson and Tavera were among 326 peace officers responsible for the arrests of some 26,000 drunk drivers in the county of Los Angeles last year.

“Californians share the roadways with 311,000 drivers who have three or more drunk driving priors, and nearly 45,000 who have 5 or more,” Pasco said, adding that because of the amount of time it takes to tabulate such data, the most recent figures on impaired drivers in California come from numbers gathered in 2007.

Olson and Tavera both said that they are motivated by the danger that impaired drivers pose to others on and off the road, and by their duty to protect the citizens of Santa Monica, but both said their greatest encouragement comes from a source much closer to home.

“As an officer, I know that more people are killed by drunk drivers than homicides in a given year,” Olson said. “Part of why I do this job is to help people and protect people. The interest in protecting lives caries over not only to the people I protect in the community, but also for members of my family who are out on the road as well.”

Tavera said that while he has always worked hard to keep drivers and citizens safe in Santa Monica, everything changed when his first son was born in July of 2007.

“Having my son has really changed my perspective on things,” he said. “When I’m on patrol, driving around I know that somebody could have just left a bar and could run a stop sign or a red light and hit me. It’s scary. But when I see my son … he’s so vulnerable and so young. A traffic accident could be very detrimental to his health, even at low speeds.”

Because of extensive training and years of experience, spotting impaired drivers is not difficult for SMPD officers.

“Especially when it’s late at night and there aren’t a lot of drivers on the road, an impaired driver really stands out,” Tavera said. “I don’t think people appreciate how poorly they drive even when they’ve only had a drink or two. It may not seem like it when you’re impaired, but when you step back and observe the driving, it’s really bad.”

Both of the officers said they felt honored to be recognized by MADD and that they are proud of their accomplishments and the department’s exemplary work in keeping drunk drivers off the road, mentioning the recent death of Angel’s pitcher Nick Adenhart as evidence to this point.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for the accomplishment, but I don’t do it for the reward; I do it for the satisfaction of taking impaired drivers off the road and protecting the citizens of Santa Monica,” Olson said.

Pasco did not mince words when expressing the importance of the work the officers have done.

“These officers know that when they go home, they’ve saved lives,” she said. “There’s nobody to thank them, but MADD gets it; the California Office of Traffic Safety gets it, and the chief of police from Santa Monica gets it. This is a very serious threat.”

news@smdp.com

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