1 in 3 fatal wrecks in county involves alcohol

GRANITE FALLS — Conrad Thompson was 6 years old when a drunken driver hit him in a crosswalk on his way to a park.

Almost 60 years later, he looks back on a lifetime of back pain and work to prevent drunken driving.

The number of wrecks caused by drunken driving have shrunk since the day that changed Thompson’s life, but the numbers are still alarming.

More than a third of fatal crashes in Snohomish County this year involved drinking and driving, said Kristal Rust, a research analyst with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Of the 41 traffic fatalities in the county in 2009, 16 involved drinking and driving, as of Dec. 18. The year’s total of drunken driving fatalities could change as police continue investigations of recent accidents, officials said.

Law enforcement officials say they are working to reduce the number of drunken driving deaths to zero. While the number of fatalities reported this year is of concern, it is not statistically out of the ordinary, Rust said.

State officials count a drunken driving death if police report that alcohol was involved in a fatal accident or if a driver’s blood showed any presence of alcohol, not necessarily a blood-alcohol level higher than the .08 legal limit, Rust explained.

The state data doesn’t reflect the death of 26-year-old Joshua Haggerton, who was hit and killed by an alleged drunken driver in Marysville in the early hours of Dec. 19.

Police investigators said breath samples taken from the driver, a 34-year-old Marysville man, showed he had a blood alcohol level of .17, more than twice the legal limit. The man told police he drank five beers and two shots of vodka before the crash. He was arrested for investigation of vehicular homicide.

A few weeks earlier, two Clearview couples, Brad and Melissa Agerup and Tom and Hilda Woods, were killed on Highway 9 when their vehicle was hit by another driven by a 27-year-old Snohomish man. That man told police he drank eight beers before he got behind the wheel of his car.

Year after year, impaired driving has been the leading cause of traffic fatalities in Washington state, Rust said. Speeding and distracted driving also rank high.

This year’s numbers are preliminary. Drunken driving crashes often happen during the winter holidays, and officials worry the toll might increase before year’s end. Final numbers sometimes arrive much later, and include crash victims who die from their injuries weeks after the wreck.

The biggest number of crashes occur during weekends, Rust said. Most drunken-driving victims are vehicle drivers and passengers. A few are pedestrians like Thompson, the man hit six decades ago.

Thompson now is the chairman of the Snohomish County DUI Task Force, whose group fights against drunken or drugged driving.

“The first thing that goes when you are under the influence is the judgment,” he said. “People need to plan ahead.”

As part of a statewide plan to crack down on drunken driving, law enforcement agencies throughout the county conduct regular patrols targeting impaired drivers, said Tracy McMillan from the task force.

During a special patrol on Dec. 11, police stopped two dozen impaired drivers in south Snohomish County alone, she said.

The patrols are highly visible: Studies have shown that drivers are reluctant to break laws if they believe they might get a ticket, McMillan said.

“Rural county highways have a high number of incidents, relating both to speed and DUI crashes,” she said.

Data shows that many deaths involving drunken drivers occurred on rural roads, many of which are narrow, curvy and poorly lit. A driver’s unfamiliarity with a particular road can also be a factor, she said.

In 2008, the commission recorded a total of 34 fatal traffic wrecks in Snohomish County, and more than half of them involved drunken drivers, Rust said.

For Thompson, every person killed also is a reminder of lives devastated by debilitating injuries.

“The sad thing is, most of these crashes are preventable,” he said.

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452, kyefimova@heraldnet.com.

Drunken driving’s toll

  • 255 people were killed in drunken driving crashes on Washington roads in 2008.

    By a 3-1 ratio, men were more likely to be killed in drunken driving crashes in Washington from 1998-2007.

    229 people were killed in drunken driving crashes in Snohomish County from 1998-2007.

    Almost half of those killed in Washington drunken driving crashes in 2004-08 were ages 16 to 30.

    (Source: Washington Traffic Safety Commission)

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