Opinion

Tis the season to drive safely | GUEST VIEWPOINT

By JoAnn Hellmann

Bright-colored lights are twinkling around town and Bing Crosby is crooning on your car radio that he’s “dreaming of a white Christmas.”

You stopped to pick up your child from a friend’s house on the way home from a late afternoon office party, and you both laugh out loud as you hit the punch line of a joke your boss told. It is beginning to get dark, but the weather is clear, the traffic slow and you’ll be pulling into your driveway in less than five minutes.

Suddenly your cheery mood is rattled as you clip the curb rounding the corner.

The reflection of a police car suddenly fills your rearview mirror.

Then blue lights start flashing, and the next thing you know, you’re being asked for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.

You dig your license out of your wallet, and then fumble through the glove box for what seems like forever — aware you are being intently watched by the police officer — before finally finding the paperwork. The policeman walks to his car.

Meanwhile you’re playing 20 questions with yourself:

“Did he see me bump that curb? Do I have a tail light out? Was I driving too fast? Too slow? Did I signal before I turned?”

Then you’re asked the question that turns your sweaty-palmed anxiety into full-blown panic: “Have you had anything to drink this afternoon?”

“Uh, I was at an office party. I just had a couple of glasses of punch, officer,” you reply.

But was it two? Three? More? You can’t recall. But it’s been more than two hours since the last drink, and you had a full meal beforehand. You felt fine when you got behind the wheel, fully alert. You’re sure you’re not the least bit intoxicated.

Surprise! First you blow a .06 on the portable breath tester, then you fail the roadside sobriety tests. The police officer now informs you that you are being arrested for driving under the influence, and asks if there is someone who can be called to come pick up your child. The one who is now looking at you in alarm and concern. The rest of what the officer says spins in kaleidoscopic confusion. You are aware, as if in a strange slow-motion sequence, of feeling the cold metal “bracelets” slide onto your wrists, and hear above all else the blood pounding in your ears as you are being led to the police car.

After the initial acute emotional discomfort of being arrested for driving under the influence, the financial impact later only adds to your misery. Your car? It gets towed to an impound, and towing and impound fees are only two of many DUI costs. There’s also bail, attorney and court costs, impact panel fees, ignition interlock fees, possibly alcohol education and treatment, and higher auto insurance premiums, even if you didn’t hit anything or hurt anybody. And that’s just a partial list of the financial wrecking ball.

As bad as it is getting arrested for driving under the influence, it’s not a worst-case scenario. Let’s get back to our impaired driver and change things just a bit.

This time, you’re approaching an intersection just a few blocks from home. Your fifth-grader is laughing about your boss’ joke. You only had ginger ale at the office party but you took some allergy medication a couple of hours earlier, and didn’t pay much heed to the warning “do not operate heavy machinery.”

The traffic light is yellow. You know it’s a “long yellow.” What you don’t know and aren’t quite alert enough to see in time is the car speeding toward you from the right. That driver is trying to make a fast left turn before his turn lane light goes red.

In a shuddering, uncomprehending instant, both your worlds explode into shattered glass and twisted metal. There is no music anymore. Just a low, gurgling moan you are shocked to discover comes from you.

You feel pain beyond anything you’ve ever experienced. But the pain tells you that you’re alive. And for that you are grateful. Until you realize in horror your child was not so fortunate.

Your life has just been shattered because of impaired driving. Both drivers under the influence in both scenarios, one by alcohol, the other by over-the-counter medication.

Impaired driving happens here, and it happens here a lot more than people realize. The Island County Sheriff’s Office and Island County Detachment of Washington State Patrol reported a total of 279 DUI arrests in 2011.

By the end of November 2012 that combined total was well beyond that at 354. Adding DUI arrests for Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley so far this year, with all but four in Oak Harbor, that number climbs to 403. And the holidays will add to that. Those numbers might not seem like much of an increase to some, but experts figure that a motorist can drive under the influence up to 1,000 times before an arrest, and that “first offender” really means “first time caught.” Many hit-and-run drivers are also seen by police and researchers as DUIs who don’t get caught.

Knowledge is power. IDIPIC panels are not only for DUI/Minor in Possession (MIP) offenders and driver’s education students and their parents, they offer all drivers potentially lifesaving information for both head and heart for “safer kids, safer roads.” Do check IDIPIC’s website for upcoming panel dates, other information or to join its team of 70-plus volunteers.

 

JoAnn Hellmann is the director for the Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County. Visit the organization’s website at idipic.org. The city of Oak Harbor, an IDIPIC Partner in Prevention, proclaimed December National Impaired Driving Prevention Month.

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