The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of 29 people die every day in a motor vehicle crash caused by drinking and driving in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 10,511 people were killed in crashes involving drinking and driving in the United States where at least one driver had a blood alcohol content of .08 g/dL or greater in 2018. The Department of Transportation also reports that in Ohio alone that same year, 835 people were killed in a car accident involving drinking and driving. That’s 28 percent of all traffic related fatalities in the state that year. That percentage is comparable to Stark County alone. The Ohio Department of Public Safety states that 28.6 percent of all traffic related fatalities this past year involved at least one driver who was impaired.
With the amount of education available and the numerous campaigns about the dangers of driving under the influence, it’s surprising to hear that people still choose to drink and drive at a frequent rate today. So, why is it that people choose to get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol? And what are the real consequences for those involved in car crashes caused by this decision?
Glenn “Chip” Vincent is a firefighter paramedic for the Jackson Township Fire Department in Stark County, Ohio. Throughout his 28 years of service, he has seen numerous crashes that have been caused by drinking and driving. Vincent explains that the amount of information given through dispatch about a crash varies from case to case depending on what is known about an accident. For example, if it is known that two cars were involved in the incident but the severity of the injuries is unknown, they will dispatch it as, “a two-vehicle crash, unknown injuries". When driving to the scene, Vincent explains that his primary focus is not on anticipating the wreck but instead on getting there safely.
The procedure for handling a wreck in Jackson Township involves a three-man medic crew and a rescue unit. The rescue unit has tools with them in case any extrication is to be done on scene. In addition, the rescue unit’s job is to protect the medic unit by blocking traffic. The first thing that happens once the crew is on scene is the officer in charge takes an evaluation of the injuries. From there, the officer alerts incoming units of the severity. If people are trapped inside of the vehicles or if there are fluids on the ground, the rescue team handles it. The medics on the scene help determine who is injured and what injuries they suffer from. Vincent explains that the common procedure is to secure the patients with the worst injuries first. The process for which the most life-threatening injuries is determined is known as the “trauma code.”
If there are multiple victims that need to be dealt with, the officer will call in more medic units to arrive on scene. Vincent explains that any time there are more than two squads sent to an accident, the battalion chief also responds in order to direct and take control of the scene. The process for determining who is in charge of the scene is known as “Incident Command Set-Up.” The process involves one person being in charge until a higher-ranking officer arrives. Whoever the highest-ranking officer at the scene is at the time is responsible for directing the other firefighter paramedics, so that way the accident can be dealt with in the most efficient way, and the victims can be transported to the hospital sooner.
The medic unit’s main job is to secure the patient and load them onto the ambulance. Once the patient is secured, they are immediately off to the hospital. This is where the purpose for a three-man unit is most important according to Vincent. The unit consists of a driver, an attendant and an officer. The officer and attendant are responsible for patient care until they arrive at the hospital.
Throughout his tenure in the fire service, Vincent has seen a number of horrible accidents caused by driving under the influence. One event Vincent recalls as particularly gruesome. The crash occurred one night in a boatyard. According to Vincent, a man and a young woman he worked with went out for a couple beers and as they were driving afterwards. The man lost control of his car and crashed right into one of the boats. The tongue of the boat went right through the young woman in the passenger’s seat and pushed her into the back of the car. The tongue impaled her chest, severed her left arm and completely took off the back of her head.
“This girl was basically skewered by the boat tongue,” Vincent states.
Unlike the woman he was with, the man driving the car survived; although he too suffered significant blood loss after being ejected through the windshield upon impact. Vincent describes what the man looked like as,
“trying to watch a zombie come out of a windshield that was stuck halfway through.”
Because he was not wearing a seatbelt, the man was sent through the windshield. He then clawed his way onto the hood of the car and through the glass covering himself in cuts. His scalp was bleeding profusely.
The young woman who lost her life in this crash had a child of about one year old at the time. Her baby has had to grow up without a mother because of one man’s choice to get behind the wheel after drinking. It was his second offense, according to Vincent, and this time, he was sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.
“That’s all he got out of it for killing a girl,” Vincent explains.
The consequences of drinking and driving include a combination of physical, mental and emotional trauma for everyone involved. Absolute Advocacy is an organization based out of North Carolina that provides education about mental health, substance abuse and driving under the influence. In an article written on the consequences of drinking and driving some of the physical consequences for survivors include brain trauma that could render people unable to speak, walk or eat on their own for the rest of their lives. It’s also explained that other body parts including the neck, spine and legs are also extremely vulnerable. Some injuries in these areas can lead to chronic pain that exists long after the accident occurred.
Besides physical injuries, major psychological trauma is experienced in survivors of drinking and driving accidents. According to the same article from Absolute Advocacy, the most common psychological issue that occurs as the result of surviving a drinking and driving accident is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who suffer from PTSD related to a car accident are likely to have flashbacks triggered anytime they ride in a vehicle.
Absolute Advocacy also details some major emotional issues associated with surviving a drinking and driving accident. Survivors of these accidents are likely to experience long-term guilt following the crash. Although survivor’s guilt can be experienced in anyone who survives the crash, the article states that it is more common to be experienced by the person who causes the accident.
While examining the stories of various survivors of drinking and driving accidents, guilt was one of the most common themes throughout. Marshal Gregory chose to drink and drive one night with three of his friends. In the accident, two people died and one was seriously injured. Gregory puts all of the blame on himself.
“And I’m thinking that because of me, two people are dead and one is seriously injured and in a wheelchair right now. He’s not able to walk. There is no way to make it right. There is nothing that I can do that’s going to make this better. There’s nothing that will make the families feel better.”
Sondra Deward is another person who caused a serious accident because of drinking and driving. In the accident, she killed two young men and seriously injured another. Like Gregory, she also expresses a lot of guilt from her actions. Deward says,
“That’s still hard because I just bought this house. I can have things in life. If I want to, I can get married and have kids. And I get to celebrate birthdays and go to holidays. I took that away from people.”
At one point, Deward even considered committing suicide. She says,
“I would think, how can I live? There’s only one option and that’s for me to go, too.”
Instead, Deward decided to plead guilty in court and face the legal consequences. Deward explains her decision.
“I made a mistake. Whatever the consequences were, I knew that I needed to do that. I of course was scared, but I knew that something needed to be done,” Deward states.
With the tragedy and guilt caused by drinking and driving, however, why do people still choose to do it? Deward explains that when the accident occurred she was only 23, and she felt invincible and that nothing bad could possibly happen to her. She had work the following morning and figured she would be alright to drive home so she could make it on time.
In Gregory’s incident, he too thought little of the consequences. Although he was heavily intoxicated from drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, he let his anger of being denied at a second house party after leaving the first fuel him into driving recklessly.
Latisha Stephens also feels tremendous guilt for a young man she killed while drinking and driving. Stephens states,
“I was so ashamed and embarrassed of what I had done. I really didn’t know how to deal with it.”
However, in this incident, two new themes emerged. Although she was devastated by the loss of her son, Tiki Finlayson was able to forgive Stephens. This forgiveness, although hard for Stephens to accept, led her to seek a path of redemption. Together, Finlayson and Stephens speak at high schools, rehab centers and anywhere else that will let them tell their story and explain the dangers and consequences of drinking and driving. Although Stephens still feels guilt over her actions, she explains how being able to warn other people to not make the mistakes she did gives new meaning to her life following the tragedy.
“Knowing that we can help someone with our story, that means everything to me. Like that is a lot of how I can accept the forgiveness and try to move forward, is knowing that we’re doing good in the world, that we’re trying to help other people to not have to go through what we’ve been through,” Stephens states.
Although drinking and driving continues to be a serious problem to this day, there is some hope. While the number of drinking and driving fatalities is still too high, the number has decreased over time. A historical document from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that the percentage of traffic deaths caused by drinking and driving has significantly decreased since the 1980s. In 1983, 45 percent of all traffic related fatalities in the United States involved at least one driver who had a blood alcohol content of .10 g/dL or greater. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that the number has decreased to 29 percent of traffic deaths.
Locally, Vincent has also noticed a decrease over time in the amount of fatalities related to drinking and driving. One reason he believes there have been less deaths over the years due to drinking and driving is that over time, safety restraints in cars have gotten better. With the education and campaigns towards wearing seatbelts, more people tend to survive accidents in cars than in the past.
Although the percentage of driving fatalities caused from drinking and driving has decreased over the years, driving under the influence remains to be a major problem today. Vincent notes specifically that younger people are more prone to not think about the consequences related to drinking and driving.
“They don't have the sense of death. You see younger kids taking more risks and stuff, and they just have bad attitudes, ‘I'm gonna get in the car. I'm gonna drink and drive.’ They don't care. They don't give a s--- what happens to you as long as they get home,” Vincent explains.
While there remains hope that the number of casualties to this totally preventable cause of death will continue to decrease, it remains crucial to continue to warn and educate the public (especially young drivers) about the dangers and consequences of drinking and driving.