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Drunk driving deaths hit 17,000 in U.S.

Friday, December 29, 2006

It was New Year's Day several years ago when Putnam County Sheriff Mark Frisbie received word of an accident on Interstate 70 at the Putnam-Morgan County line.

When he arrived at the scene, Frisbie found a car crushed and lodged precariously underneath the rear end of a semi-tractor trailer. The smell of alcohol and engine fluids filled the air.

The driver, a young man from Hendricks County, died just seconds after Frisbie walked up to the car. A toxicology test later showed the man was intoxicated to twice the legal limit of .08.

Frisbie said he thought the man was on his way home from a New Year's Eve party.

Frisbie fears more could die in accidents this weekend as many people choose to ring in the new year by drinking alcohol. That's why the sheriff's department, along with police agencies across the county, will beef up patrols in search of drunken drivers this weekend.

"If you're out there driving impaired and we find you, you're going to jail," Frisbie said. "It's so much easier to ask for a ride home or to have a designated driver."

Last year during the period from Christmas to New Year's, seven people were booked into the Putnam County Jail for drunken driving. The year before that, there were two people booked in for drunken driving and one for public intoxication.

"We know it's that time of year again and people will be out doing some extra drinking," Greencastle Police Chief Tom Sutherlin said.

He said he will remind his officers who are on duty this weekend to be extra vigilant in their search for intoxicated drivers.

"I don't know that it's a huge problem, but it's just known that people tend to drink more during the holiday and so we try to prepare for that," Sutherlin said.

The Indiana State Police will also have extra officers out on the roads this weekend.

While drunken driving on New Year's weekend may not be a major problem locally, it is a significant issue on a state and national level.

Statistics from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration reveal that one-third of the fatal accidents that occurred in Indiana last year were alcohol-related.

While those figures may be alarming, they have improved in recent years.

According to statistics compiled by national lobbying group MADD, Indiana saw 384 people die in alcohol-related accidents in 1999. Those numbers dropped to 304 in 2004 and 320 in 2005.

Regionally, Indiana fared better than all its neighbors except for Kentucky where 313 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2005. Illinois saw 580 alcohol-related deaths last year, followed by Ohio with 505 and Michigan with 421.

Across the U.S. last year, there were nearly 17,000 people killed in alcohol-related accidents, accounting for 39 percent of all accidents, according to MADD.

And the driver isn't the only one who suffers in a drunk driving accident.

This year, Putnam County saw two local teenagers killed as passengers in alcohol-related accidents.

Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Wehrheim, Cloverdale, died as a passenger in a car accident on June 4 and Ricky Johnston, 17, Greencastle, died in a car with a drunken driver on May 21.

Young children also fall victim to these types of accidents.

MADD reports that in 2003, 21 percent of the children under age 15 who were killed in motor vehicle accidents were killed in alcohol-related crashes.

Additionally, of children 0-14 years old who were killed in alcohol-related crashes in 2003, 47 percent were passengers in a vehicle driven by a drunken driver.

"Even more tragic is for someone who is not drunk to be killed," Frisbie said.

So as this New Year's weekend approaches, police officers are asking the public to be aware of these issues and help by looking for drunken drivers.

Anyone who observes a driver who they think may be intoxicated is urged to call 911 immediately.



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