By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007
A George Mason University student had a blood alcohol level of .14 when she drove her convertible into the path of a tractor-trailer on a Capital Beltway ramp, killing herself and three friends, and she had been convicted of drinking and driving a year earlier, according to sources and court documents.
Virginia State Police have not released toxicology tests performed on Elaine M. Thackston, 20, saying only that she had a blood alcohol content above the .02 legal limit for someone younger than 21 and had marijuana in her system. Sources familiar with the case provided the results to The Washington Post. It could not be learned whether the four passengers in the June 14 crash near the Springfield Mixing Bowl, including a 17-year-old who survived, had been drinking or using drugs.
State law says underage drivers whose blood tests at .02 or above can be charged with a misdemeanor known among lawyers as "baby DUI'' for driving after illegally consuming alcohol. There is debate about when those drivers can be considered intoxicated. Some anti-drunken-driving activists and law enforcement officials, including Virginia State Police, interpret the law to mean that a driver who tests as low as .02 is intoxicated. Others, such as Fairfax County police, do not.
Thackston's blood alcohol level -- well above even Virginia's legal limit of .08 for those 21 and older -- would probably have left her with slurred speech, blurred vision and poor motor skills, experts said. "She should not have been driving a car,'' said Beth Kane Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital's addiction treatment center in Bethesda.
Thackston, of Troy, N.H., was ticketed for speeding just nine days before the crash, which left her Volkswagen demolished and upside down on a ramp to Interstate 95. An open gallon of vodka, about half of it gone, and a six-pack of beer were found near the front seat, police said.
Thackston's family did not return phone calls yesterday.
Under Virginia's multitiered system, the legal blood alcohol limit is .02 for people younger than 21. It is .04 for drivers of commercial vehicles and .08 for everyone else.
State police, who patrol state highways and investigated the Beltway crash, consider an underage driver who tests as low as .02 to be "driving while intoxicated based on the threshold established by the law,'' spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
Pat O'Connor, past president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Northern Virginia chapter, said Virginia "is dead serious about underage drinking and isn't splitting hairs. The state has made a decision that if you are under 21 and you blow a .02, you are intoxicated.''
Police in Northern Virginia's largest county, Fairfax, disagreed. Don Gotthardt, a Fairfax police spokesman, said a minor who tests at .02 is "not considered to be legally intoxicated.'' But he added that the minor "would be in violation of the law" and that Fairfax has a "zero-tolerance policy" toward underage drinking and driving.
Virginia law defines intoxication as having drunk enough "to observably affect . . . manner, disposition, speech, muscular movement, general appearance or behavior.''
"There could be some situations where a person who is .02 would meet that definition,'' said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. "It's going to depend on who the person is and the effects of the alcohol.''
But Sengel and other prosecutors and police officials said one thing is clear: Underage drivers who test at .02 or above will be charged with being younger than 21 and driving after illegally consuming alcohol. The so-called baby DUI law, punishable by a six-month driver's license forfeiture and a $500 fine, does not mention intoxication or impairment. As state police pointed out, however, the entire section of the law dealing with drinking and driving is titled: "Driving Motor Vehicle . . . While Intoxicated.''
Underage drivers whose blood tests at .01 could also be charged if they show signs of drunkenness but are not charged automatically, even though the legal drinking age is 21, state police said.
Thackston was charged under the baby DUI law May 4, 2006, when she was pulled over by police on the Fairfax County Parkway in Herndon. She pleaded guilty after her blood alcohol tested at .04. She was fined $100, and her license was suspended for six months, court records show.
Fairfax police also stopped Thackston for going 40 mph in a 25 zone in the Burke area June 5. Her court date was scheduled for Aug. 28.
Police have said that alcohol was a factor in the Beltway crash nine days later but that it is unclear how large a role it played. Witnesses told police that Thackston appeared to be driving normally until just before impact and that she was not speeding.
The crash occurred at 10:40 p.m. as the Volkswagen headed west on the Beltway's inner loop, in the middle lane of five, toward the Springfield interchange, police said.
Along with Thackston, the crash killed her roommate at George Mason, Sarah R. Carter, 19, a West Potomac High School graduate; Carter's cousin, Lydia M. Petkoff, 18; and Petkoff's classmate, Renee N. Shelkin, 18, all of the Alexandria area.
Petkoff and Shelkin had received their West Potomac diplomas that day. The 17-year-old who survived is a West Potomac student.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.