Drunken drivers don’t discriminate about who they kill, where or when. They often lose their own lives, as well.
Then, the victims’ families, the community and law enforcement are left to deal with the wreckage.
The investigations are lengthy and complex. Even in cases that are successfully prosecuted, drivers who kill rarely spend more than a few years behind bars.
A Washington Traffic Safety Commission analysis of fatal crashes in Snohomish County between 2005 and 2009 found that drunken or drugged driving took at least 111 lives. In terms of body count, that makes driving under the influence more deadly than murder.
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Half of all fatal wrecks in the county involved drugs or alcohol, according to state data.
Traffic-safety experts have spent decades trying to educate people before they get behind the wheel, said Shelly Baldwin, a program manager with the commission.
“As a mother, as a citizen, as someone who uses these public roads, I have a right to drive on these roads without being hit by someone who’s driving while committing the crime of impaired driving,” she said.
The trouble, she says, is that being drunk or high affects someone’s ability to assess their own impairment. They must plan a safe way home before it’s too late, and they make the wrong decision.
Education and prevention efforts are working, but society has been slow to change, Baldwin said.
She and others focus on reaching those most likely to be killed: teen boys and young men. They give classroom talks, run television and radio ads, and use social media campaigns.
Most people have accepted that driving under the influence isn’t right, Baldwin said. In surveys, people who admit to drunken driving often say they don’t remember the act — only waking up with regret.
The point of the safety campaigns is to stop people from making “a judgment about their impairment when their judgment is impaired,” she said.
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When drivers kill someone and survive, they can face criminal prosecution.
People think it’s easy to bring charges. Reality is very different.
From 2005 to 2009, Snohomish County reported 90 homicides. Those cases almost always involve a conscious act and supporting evidence: bloody knives, bullets or fingerprints.
Detectives often find motives to explain what happened, personal relationships.
In comparison, most crashes are random. The driver doesn’t set out to kill somebody.
In a vehicular homicide case, an investigator must not only be able to prove how a crash happened, but also that the driver’s conduct was criminal, such as driving recklessly or while under the influence.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Collision Investigation Unit handled about 17 fatal investigations last year. At least six of those went to Detective Joe Goffin.
Goffin’s been a cop for more than two decades and a collision detective since 1998.
The majority of his cases involve drugs or alcohol, he said.
After a fatal wreck, it takes months to build a case that will hold up in court, he said.
A patrol officer handling a minor crash might take two dozen pictures, Goffin said. For a fatal, he might take 400.
When detectives arrive at the scene, most of the injured have been treated or taken to a hospital, he said. The driver at fault may be dead, seriously injured or suffering from memory loss. The driver may be too intoxicated or simply refuse to talk.
The detectives get to work.
They try to get blood samples from everyone involved, Goffin said.
He asks people to give blood because it can rule them out as a suspect and prevent hangups with their insurance company, he said.
“If somebody’s a victim, we try to get blood from them to prove they’re a victim,” he said. “We try to prove people are victims as much as we try to prove that people are under the influence.”
If a crash results in death, he asks a judge for permission to search the vehicle for evidence. The collision unit also does a full inspection of the vehicle to rule out any mechanical causes of the crash.
Goffin must look at where the vehicles struck and where they came to rest. He must look at road conditions, how far drivers could see down the road and for any road defects.
He also looks at the injuries to those involved to see whether they match with people’s statements about how the crash happened. He may pull surveillance video or request a warrant for cellphone records.
“We’re just trying to find the truth, wherever that may lie,” he said.
Then, the wait begins.
Generally, a blood test takes a month to get results. The detectives need autopsy findings. They must download information from the surveying equipment they use to precisely document the crash. They process any data that can be pulled from the “black box” computer systems inside some cars. They calculate momentum and inertia. They draw diagrams. They talk to witnesses.
After running down all the leads, they must present their case file to prosecutors, who decide whether to file criminal charges.
“We want to do a thorough case, and that just takes time,” Goffin said.
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Traffic safety commission data show eight out of 10 impaired fatal crashes in Snohomish County happened on state highways or county roads.
Street cops see the mayhem, too.
In city limits, impaired drivers usually are spotted failing to obey traffic signals, speeding or driving recklessly, Lynnwood police officer Mark Brinkman said.
Brinkman is an award-winning expert at recognizing signs of impairment and getting drunken and drugged drivers off the road. It became his passion when a young girl died in his arms after she was thrown from a drunken-driving crash.
Drug use — legal and otherwise — is a significant factor in impaired driving, Brinkman said.
According to preliminary statewide data, 2010 was the first year with as many fatal wrecks linked to drugs as alcohol, though some crashes involved drivers who’d used both.
Brinkman said he arrests a lot of drivers who are abusing painkillers, but he also sees plenty of people impaired by prescribed drugs they are using legitimately, including sleep aids.
Some people assume it’s OK to drive under the influence of medicine they get from a doctor, Brinkman said. Yet most prescription bottles bear warnings against operating heavy machinery. A car counts in that category.
“It impairs judgment. It impairs their reaction time,” he said. “It impairs their ability to recognize if a threat’s coming or if it’s time to stop because the light is turning red.”
Grant-funded emphasis patrols have made a difference, he said. Officers flood and sweep areas that data show are frequented by impaired drivers.
The Washington State Patrol uses collision and arrest statistics to identify trouble zones, Trooper Keith Leary said. The data is renewed every month or two. They look for trends or patterns and deploy resources accordingly.
The task force maintains the Snohomish County DUI Victims Memorial Wall at McCollum Park in south Everett, manager Tracy McMillan said.
As of last week, there were more than 100 names on the wall.
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Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Doug Gold teaches free traffic-safety programs for parents and teens. The “Driving It Home” program generally includes presentations by people who have lost someone to impaired driving and displays of actual cars ripped apart in crashes.
The class is not appropriate for small children. Everyone else is welcome.
Each class is from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on a Saturday, with a half-hour social before class. Here are the next four scheduled:
April 7: Woodinville High School
June 2: Kamiak High School
Oct. 6: Stanwood High School
Oct. 27: Snohomish High School
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