Drinking shoots ‘big holes in your judgment’
Six-year-old Sahara told her parents she saw “my Tata” in the clouds in a dream and wanted to write him a letter.
“I love you, Tata,” she wrote. Her mother, Tucsonan Monica Salazar, wept as she recalled the letter and the death of her father.
Her father and Sahara’s tata, which means grandfather, Marco Salazar, 53, was killed Dec. 20 in Marana when a 21-year-old Tucson woman drove drunk into oncoming traffic at 10:40 p.m., according to detectives and her admission.
Salazar was one of 28 people killed in alcohol-related car crashes in Pima County and Tucson in 2008, according to data from the city and county.
That’s virtually unchanged from 2007 when there were 27 such fatalities.
That bucks a local, state and national trend in which traffic fatalities of all types have decreased.
According to research by USA TODAY, Arizona traffic fatalities fell from 1,071 in 2007 to 920 last year. In Tucson, traffic fatalities fell from 54 in 2007 to 51 in 2008.
Why drinking-related fatalities also didn’t go down here was not known.
Traffic fatality numbers, including alcohol-related deaths, go up and down from year to year here, said Sgt. Tim Beam, supervisor of the Tucson police traffic investigations unit.
“Collisions have been going down because of education, stepped-up enforcement” of speeding and red-light running and because of improvements on roadways made by traffic engineers, Beam said.
Another reason for the decrease in traffic deaths may be the reduction in miles driven, traffic experts said.
In the 13 months ending Nov. 30, Americans drove an estimated 112 billion fewer miles than the previous similar period, a drop of about 3.4 percent and far outpacing the 49.9-billion-mile decline during the oil embargoes of the 1970s, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
“There’s growing evidence that declines in travel are leading to declines in deaths,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Beyond that, I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint all the changes we see in deaths to different factors.”
Those declines should also show up in driving under the influence-related deaths, experts said, but national and state data on DUI related traffic deaths are not yet available.
However, nationally in 2007, there were nearly 500 fewer DUI-related traffic deaths than in 2006, with 13,491 in 2006 and 12,998 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“We’re killing about 40,000 people a year nationwide,” Beam said, “and about half of those are DUI-related deaths.”
“When you drink, you shoot big holes in your judgment as your alcohol content goes up,” he said.
“A sober driver can react on the road in about one and a half seconds, but a drunk driver takes three or four seconds to react,” he said. “When you’re moving at 40 miles an hour, you’re traveling 64 feet a second and you’ve gone the length of a football field” by the time you perceive the situation and react to it, he said. “Most of the time, that’s way too late.”
The reduction in traffic deaths in Arizona is little solace to the Salazar family.
Salazar’s Toyota pickup truck was struck head-on. He was ejected and died on the frontage road of Interstate 10 in Marana.
The family said the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will never be the same.
Driver Elizabeth Tuccini was hurt in the crash but because of federal privacy laws, details of her injuries were not released.
Pima County sheriff’s reports and a search warrant said Tuccini told investigators “she didn’t know how she got onto the frontage road” along Interstate 10.
She admitted to a paramedic that she drank “one pint of Jaegermeister” about an hour before the crash and also consumed Vicodin, a synthetic narcotic, reports said.
She also said she was “sorry” about what happened, the reports said.
Tuccini has been charged with reckless manslaughter and was released from jail on a $15,000 bond.
According to investigators’ reports, blood tests showed she was impaired by alcohol before she got behind the wheel of her 2005 Dodge Dakota.
“Her stupidity affected a lot of people’s lives,” said Monica Salazar, 35, as the family gathered recently to talk about their loss.
Granddaughter Briana Montaño, 14, sobbed as she told a reporter her grandfather “was like a father to me.”
Salazar was driving alone in his 1987 pickup. His family said he likely was on his way to his midtown Tucson home after doing plumbing repair work for a friend in Marana.
The longtime South Side family learned about the crash early on Dec. 21, when two detectives arrived at the front door of Salazar’s ex-wife, Lorene Salazar, 53
Investigators first went to Salazar’s home, where he lived alone. Neighbors told them where to find his family.
Lorene and Marco Salazar were married for 36 years and raised three children in a home he built on the South Side and sold after they divorced about two years ago.
The ex-spouses remained close.
Marco Salazar attended Wakefield Middle School and Pueblo High School. He was born in Nogales, Ariz., and raised in Tucson. He left high school before graduation to go to work as an auto mechanic. Later he worked as a mechanic for a mining company.
He worked hard to provide “everything” for his family, his children said. They remain stunned that he is gone.
“All of us to our last breath will suffer our whole lives,” said Marco Salazar Jr., 27, who was named for his father and grew up with his father’s love of race cars and motorcycles.
Tuccini was not arrested immediately after the crash, while sheriff’s investigators collected evidence.
The Salazars knew nothing about the person whose vehicle authorities said struck Marco Salazar’s truck.
Family members went to the crash site on Dec. 23 to see it for themselves and to place a memorial at mile marker 234 on the frontage road off Interstate 10.
In the dirt and debris, they spotted evidence of the crash: a Victoria’s Secret lotion bottle, a “Coyote Ugly” CD and a Shakira CD.
They found Salazar’s sunglasses in the dirt, along with his work gloves, his pen and a cushion from his truck.
“We didn’t know until a week and a half later it was a female and she was intoxicated,” Monica Salazar said.
“We knew it wasn’t his fault.”
Marco Salazar Jr. inherited his father’s beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle and other vehicles.
“Every time I ride my dad’s bike, I cry,” he said. “It hurts.”
Monica Salazar said Tuccini scarred the family “for life.”
Mark Montaño, 13, Salazar’s grandson, wept when he said, “We gotta live with that forever.”
The Salazars expressed empathy for Tuccini’s family and how it must be suffering.
They wondered why a 21-year-old would drive with a blood alcohol level of 0.187.
That is more than twice the 0.08 level at which an individual is presumed impaired by Arizona law.
“One of the first things to go when you’ve been drinking is your judgment. You’ve had four or five drinks and you think, ‘I can get home OK,’ and then you’re buried in the side of a minivan and you’ve killed someone,” Beam said.
“There isn’t enough social stigma attached to drinking and driving to stop anybody” from driving drunk, he said.
Tuccini waived her right to remain silent and told police she started drinking at 9 p.m., about 90 minutes before the crash, officers said.
As a condition of her release from jail on bail, Tuccini was ordered not to drink alcohol and to get a valid Arizona driver’s license.
At the time of the crash, she didn’t have one and her Michigan license had been suspended, according to local court documents. The reason for the suspension could not be determined.
Tuccini’s defense attorney, Michael Bloom, has declined to comment on the case.
The Salazar family’s attorney, Kevin M. Moore, called the crash “a terrible wrong.”
Jason Redford, Monica Salazar’s fiance, said Marco Salazar “would do anything for anybody.”
Monica Salazar said her father “if he could, would take the shirt off his back” to help others.
Her dad built the Tucson home where he and Lorene raised their three children.
“He had the greenest grass in the neighborhood all year round,” Monica Salazar said.
In addition to his three children, his former wife and his mother, Marco Salazar is survived by six grandchildren: three girls and three boys. The youngest is 18 months old.
He was buried at South Lawn Cemetery.
The casket was closed during the viewing because of the extent of his injuries.
USA TODAY contributed to this article.