Drunk-driving deaths see a spike during holidays

Drunk driving deaths rise 35 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, MADD says.

As the holiday season gets into full swing, police and safety advocates have a grim reminder of what can happen when party-goers take to the road after having too much to drink.

“One time, one person can change so many people’s lives,” said Rachel Babich, program director for the Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities have been declining for years, but this is the time of year when those long-term trend lines get interrupted. Between 2013 and 2017, drunk driving deaths between Thanksgiving eve and New Year’s eve increased 35 percent, according to Babich.

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Drunken and drugged driving remains the leading cause of death on American roadways. In Ohio, alcohol-impaired driving led to 314 deaths in 2017 — or about six every week.

Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Robert Sellers said training, deterrence and awareness have each contributed to a drop in alcohol-related crashes across Ohio as well as a record number of OVI arrests by troopers.

The 314 deaths in 2017 represented a 61 percent drop over the peak of 809 fatalities in 1986, according to the patrol. Meanwhile, OVI arrests, or operating a vehicle while impaired, increased 24 percent between 2010 and 2017.

‘It’s not an accident’

Though the trends are mostly moving in a positive direction, with more arrests and fewer fatalities, a single death is devastating for any family.

You don’t have to tell that to Brian and Nancy Cooper of Washington Twp.

On Nov. 19, 2011, a police officer and representative of the Montgomery County coroner’s office knocked at the Coopers’ door at 3 a.m. with news that could scarcely be worse: Their 18-year-old son, Corey, and his girlfriend, Christina Jackson, 20, were killed when their car was t-boned by a driver traveling nearly 100 miles per hour.

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Robert Finkley, whose blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit, eventually pleaded no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide charges and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Finkley, now 36, is slated for release in January.

Another area crash, in October of last year, ended the life of another teenager: 18-year-old Calip Grimm of Miami Twp. Grimm was driving south on Interstate 675 near Ohio 48 at about 9 p.m. when a car headed the wrong way crashed into him. Both drivers — Grimm and 69-year-old Melvin Bonie of Beavercreek — were killed.

Toxicology results later showed Bonie’s alcohol content was 0.182 percent, more than twice Ohio’s legal limit of 0.08.

Brian Cooper, who now volunteers for Ohio MADD, said drunk driving “is a 100 percent preventable crime. It’s not an accident,” he said. “It’s completely preventable. People need to realize that.”

MADD encourages people to designate a sober driver, call a taxi, use a ride-sharing app or spend the night at a friend’s when drinking.

“It is so easy to have a plan ahead of time,” Babich said.

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On the night Corey Cooper and Christina Jackson were killed, Nancy sobbed to her husband, “This can’t be happening. This can’t be true.”

Eight years later, their grief is still with them.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t think about Corey and Christina,” Brian said.

Legislative push

MADD is pushing every state to mandate ignition locks for all drunk driving offenders. Some 350,000 in-car Breathlyzers are installed to prevent repeat drunk drivers from driving under the influence again, according to MADD.

In 2016, Ohio passed a law giving drunk driving offenders an incentive for accepting an ignition lock on their vehicles but it isn’t mandatory. Babich said Ohio MADD is hoping to strengthen the ignition lock law next year.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 29 states have laws mandating ignition locks for all offenders with drunk driving convictions on their records.

Ohio has toughened the OVI laws in recent years. Most OVIs are misdemeanors with progressive penalties for repeat offenders, including jail time.

Prosecutors can seek felony charges carrying state prison time if a suspect has had three previous convictions in six years or four in 20 years, or if a drunken driving crash resulted in serious injury or death. OVI felonies can result in up to 10 years’ imprisonment, even if no one is injured.

Ohio law also established a searchable database of drivers convicted five or more times of drunk or drugged driving. You can view the registry on the Ohio Department of Public Safety website or click here.

Emerging trend: Driving on drugs

Drunken driving convictions have averaged 38,000 per year over the past five years in Ohio, according to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

But while Ohio has made progress combating drunken driving, drugged driving is increasing, Sellers said.

In 2013, Ohio had 1,327 drug-only related traffic crashes that led to 39 deaths. In 2017, the crashes had nearly doubled — to 2,553 — and the number of deaths climbed to 91.

“Let’s face it, that’s the emerging trend,” Sellers said.

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By the numbers

27,341: Number of OVI arrests in Ohio in 2017, a 24 percent increase from 2010.

314: Number of alcohol-related fatalities in Ohio in 2017, a 61 percent drop from the peak in 1986.

91: Number of drug-related fatalities in Ohio in 2017, a 133 percent increase over 2013.

Source: Ohio Highway Patrol

Alcohol-related crashes have been declining for years. Here are some of the reasons why, according to experts:

  • Stricter laws: Safety advocates say lowering blood-alcohol content thresholds saves lives; some call for lowering the current 0.08 threshold even lower, to 0.05.
  • Tougher enforcement: Sobriety check lanes and other high-visibility enforcement actions have led to more OVI arrests, even as alcohol-related crashes are down.
  • Automatic license suspensions: Taking someone’s license away doesn’t guarantee they won’t drive, but it adds to the penalties if they do.
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