You have a choice: Don’t drink and drive |

You have a choice: Don’t drink and drive

In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s untimely death, it becomes incumbent upon us to take a long hard look at several factors involved in her tragic accident – a drunk driver as well as safety belts not being used.

Impaired driving due to the use of alcohol or drugs is a serious threat to everyone’s safety, everywhere. Unfortunately, it is an all too common occurrence in the resort communities of Lake Tahoe and Truckee, where having a “good time” frequently translates into hours of “social” drinking.

Tourists and residents alike often get behind the wheel of a vehicle in a less-than-sober condition. And when they do, the vehicle immediately becomes a potentially deadly weapon against anyone else unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As of this writing, the Truckee office of the California Highway Patrol has investigated six fatal traffic accidents in our area this year alone. The natural question becomes whether these are “accidents” or are they crimes?

Most accidents are just that – accidents, truly unintentional, unexpected, and often unavoidable. However, five of these six fatal accidents were caused by intoxicated drivers. These accidents claimed nine livesnine deaths that could have been avoided.

Why do drunk driving accidents so often result in death? Because of the way alcohol impairs judgment, drunk drivers tend to drive too fast, cross into the opposing lane, and fail to wear seat belts. All these factors can easily result in a severe impact collision and ejection from the vehicle.

To dispel the misconception that terrible accidents only happen at high freeway speeds, four of our fatal DUI accidents this year occurred on “safer” two-lane highways and surface streets.

As many of you will remember, four people died instantly in a violent three-car collision on Highway 267 last January. In one irrevocable moment, half of an entire family and the errant driver’s brother were left dead. No second chances for them.

Another needless loss occurred on Highway 89 near Squaw Valley when a victim of an intoxicated driver died as the result of a head-on collision.

Just last month, a young woman died on Highway 28 near Rocky Ridge when she was ejected from her vehicle because she had not used her safety belt.

None of these “accidents” were unavoidable, but each one of these deaths was unnecessary.

In 1996, Truckee CHP investigated 12 fatal accidents, of which four were caused by drunk drivers.

In 1995, we investigated 10 fatal accidents; four were caused by drunk drivers.

This year to date, this office has investigated 458 accidents – 40 of them caused by drunk drivers. Though that is a little less than nine percent of total accidents caused by drunk drivers, five out of six fatalities were caused by drunk drivers – an astounding 83 percent.

These statistics are much more than numbers; they each represent human lives, loved ones lost and countless other lives shattered. Lives like yours and mine. It could happen to any of us.

Can anything be done? The answer is a resounding yes. Apprehending intoxicated drivers, among the CHP’s many missions, is one of our most important. We do everything we can to keep those drivers off the road. Officers attempt to locate and arrest as many drunk drivers as possible, sometimes three or four in one night a sad commentary on our society.

The CHP also uses public relations programs, school programs, as well as DUI checkpoints, to curtail the very real threat drinking and driving poses. Our ultimate goal is not to arrest drunk drivers, but to keep them from driving in the first place. Without drug and alcohol impaired drivers, our mountain home would be an infinitely safer place for all of us.

Once arrested, drunk drivers get no breaks; not from the CHP, not from the district attorneys and not from our local court judges.

During the first eight months of this year alone, the Truckee CHP has already arrested more than 250 drunk drivers. In 1996, we arrested 417 drunk drivers; in 1995, we arrested 366.

These increasing numbers are alarming. But law enforcement agencies cannot do it alone – we need everyone’s help. Use your safety belts and insist that your passengers use theirs. Always designate a driver when drinking. Never let anyone who’s had “one too many” drive. If you’ve been drinking yourself, don’t get behind the wheel – you have a choice. Report any kind of dangerous driving you observe to local law enforcement, as soon as possible.

During the investigation process of fatal collisions, friends of the driver are regularly questioned as to how much the person had to drink. The most common answer is that the person wasn’t drunk, that he or she “only had a couple beers.”

More often than not the subsequent lab results show a blood alcohol level in the neighborhood of .18 percent, well above the legal limit – “a couple beers” or not. Of course by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Not only may your friend be dead, but someone else who just happened to be in the way may likely have been killed as well. Again, there’s too few second chances. The problem is all of ours. The time to get involved is now.

Informing the families of these victims is an indescribably difficult and sad duty. As the commander of the CHP in this area and a veteran of 28 years on the force, I can tell you that it is never easy to tell a family that a loved one is gone forever. Your heart aches, you can’t sleep, you wish you could turn back the clock. Many times, I’ve wished there had been an officer on Highway 267 that terrible night in January. If we only could have prevented it from happening.

We will keep on trying to prevent future tragedies. Please help us – make a difference.

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