Hilton's & Hollywood's big problem: driving - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Hilton's & Hollywood's big problem: driving

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Posted: Friday, June 29, 2007 6:55 am | Updated: 7:31 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

LOS ANGELES - Paris Hilton promised to become a better person when she got out of jail. The more important issue, though, may be whether she can be a better driver.

Will the hotel heiress have the good sense to hand her keys to someone else after a night of club-hopping, or risk another stay at the gray-bar hotel?

She says she's wised up, but the intersection of Hollywood and wine (not to mention beer and booze) has long spelled trouble for celebrities who take the wheel, meaning it could be harder than even Hilton realizes to find another way home.

"They don't want to spend the money to pay for a car service because they want to be photographed in their fancy cars," veteran Hollywood media image consultant Michael Sands says of too many celebrities he's known.

What should be a no-brainer - don't drink and drive - becomes all but impossible for many of them, Sands says. As a result, the list of celebrity DUI scofflaws grows almost daily.

A few highlights:

- Mel Gibson tools down Pacific Coast Highway at 87 mph with a bottle of tequila in his Lexus last year before he's pulled over. After an angry, anti-Semitic rant in which he blames Jews for all the world's wars, he's taken to jail for drunken driving.

- Lindsay Lohan, six weeks shy of the legal drinking age, winds up in the hospital, then under arrest on suspicion of DUI and finally in rehab after crashing her Mercedes-Benz into a curb on the Sunset Strip over Memorial Day weekend.

- Nicole Richie, 25, is charged with DUI in December after the California Highway Patrol finds her SUV parked in a freeway car pool lane with her in it. She's entered a not guilty plea.

- Rapper-actress Eve pleads no contest to DUI after smashing her Maserati into a concrete median on Hollywood Boulevard and is sentenced to wearing a booze-detecting ankle bracelet for 45 days.

Observers in other parts of the country wonder why someone with more than enough money to hire a limo - not to mention a small army of hangers-on to drive it - would persist in getting plastered and then getting behind the wheel.

In New York, with more public transportation and less emphasis on personal cars, fewer celebrities seem to get stopped. Actor Tracy Morgan of "30 Rock" did manage to get busted for DUI in both cities, however, pleading no contest in Los Angeles last year and guilty in New York this year.

Driving drunk has less to do with Southern California's car culture and more with a mind-set, says Los Angeles behavioral psychologist Antoine Bechara. Someone who is drunk, celebrity or otherwise, has trouble realizing they shouldn't drive, he said.

"Alcohol tends to impact the area of the brain ... which has to do with judgment and decision making," Bechara said. "Usually these individuals become unaware, or they just deny, that they are drunk and not able to drive."

Add to that the self-importance and narcissism of famous people who are surrounded by entourages, says University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright, and it can be a dangerous mix.

"Often, they're so self-absorbed that they can't think of the impact of their behavior on others," she said.

That's an attitude Chris Heltai has seen firsthand. He's the chief driver for Home James, a business that dispatches drivers on small fold-up motor scooters to clubs and bars where people have had too much to drink. The riders fold up their scooters, put them in a client's car and drive the person home.

The number of celebrities using the service is small, said Heltai.

"They just don't want to be bothered. They think it's a hassle," he said. "They feel a lack of control when they hand their car over to someone else. And to acknowledge they're too drunk to drive is another thing. No one wants to feel like a wuss."

And so Vivica A. Fox collects a DUI arrest in March after officers saw her blow by their patrol car at 80 mph. Haley Joel Osment, just 18 at the time, rams his car into a Pasadena mailbox last July, breaks a rib and pleads no contest to driving under the influence.

In one of the most serious cases, former "Prison Break" actor Lane Garrison pleads guilty to vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving after his SUV hits a tree and his teenage passenger is killed. He'll be sentenced in August and could face nearly seven years in prison.

Not that such celebrity troubles are anything new.

A wild-eyed Nick Nolte provided the Internet with one of its most outrageous booking photos after he was stopped for driving erratically on Pacific Coast Highway in 2002 and pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of drugs.

Also to be found on the Web is a YouTube clip of an embarrassed "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson explaining his early 1980s drunken driving arrest.

"I'll tell you one thing, you will never see me do that again," Carson promises his audience.

The talk-show host, who died in 2005, kept that promise.

So has Gibson, so far. Since his arrest last year, the 51-year-old actor-director apologized, completed rehab and went on to promote his latest directing effort, "Apocalypto." A judge praised him in May for his progress.

Whether the 26-year-old Hilton can do the same remains to be seen.

During her interview Wednesday with CNN's Larry King, she pledged, "I will never drink and drive again."

Hilton was tossed into the slammer after failing a field sobriety test last September, pleading no contest to reckless driving and then getting caught twice violating probation by driving on a suspended license. She told King she had only one drink.

One thing she and several of her young Hollywood peers may have had working against them, Bechara says, is their age. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls judgment, doesn't fully develop until people are in their 20s.

"Luckily, in most people it eventually matures and everybody wises up," he said.

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