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Drinking and driving: a deadly 4th of July cocktail

The sun-kissed days of July bring backyard barbecues, fireworks and lazy afternoons at the pool.

But those longer, carefree days also can bring more occasions for cocktails. And that makes July an especially dangerous time to be on the road.

More people die in drunk-driving crashes during this month than in any other, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The 4th of July is a major reason why.

Compounding matters this year, many plan to extend the holiday into a four-day weekend.

“We want people to come out and celebrate,” said Sgt. John Chafee of the Atlanta Police Department. “We have so much to offer in the city. We just want people to be safe about it and have a plan.”

That means choosing a designated driver, taking public transportation or perhaps setting up a rideshare account, he said.

Almost 40% of the nation’s traffic deaths during the 4th of July week were alcohol-related in 2017, the most recent year for which NHTSA data is available. That translates into 237 people killed in drunk-driving crashes. All told, 10,874 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2017.

In this file photo, a sign on the the shoulder of the westbound lanes of Interstate 20 near Panola Road commemorates Robert Shane Wilson, a Doraville police officer was answering a call when a driver heading the wrong way on the intersate hit him. Police charged the motorist with driving under the influence.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In Georgia, a quarter of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol-impaired drivers, according to 2017 estimates from NHTSA. That’s below the national average of 29 percent.

The legal blood-alcohol level for drivers in Georgia is .08. But Georgia also has a “DUI Less Safe” statute, which means that a driver with a blood alcohol level less than .08 grams can be convicted if the driver appears to be driving unsafely by making sudden turns, drifting, swerving or braking erratically.

Chafee said people can be overconfident when it comes to drinking and driving. Often, they think they’re the best judge of whether they’re fit to drive. The problem is, Chafee said, as people drink, they can become impaired and lose the ability to make rational decisions.

There is cause for hope that the message is getting across to more people. Overall, the national alcohol-impaired driving fatality rate over the past 10 years has dropped by 13 percent, according to the NHTSA.

Also, in Atlanta, the number of DUI arrests in 2018 totaled 1,091, down from 1,544 in 2015.

Chafee and others believe a combination of factors, including rideshare services like Uber — which allows people to request and receive a ride within minutes, with just a couple taps on their smartphone — are helping to curb drinking and driving.

Social media also discourages drinking and driving somewhat because many fear that their mugshot might end up posted for everyone to see, Chafee said.

An arrest is also expensive. Costs can add up to several thousand dollars for fines, court fees, hiked insurance rates and lost productivity.

But none of those consequences compares to the staggering human toll of drinking and driving, said Chris Sandy, who was 22 years old when he made a tragic decision.

On a spring evening in 2000, Sandy went to a party, had too much to drink, and decided to drive to another party. When he tried to pass a car a country road, traveling at nearly 80 mph, he plowed into a vehicle carrying an elderly couple. The woman died instantly; her husband died in a LifeFlight helicopter.

Sandy, of Jackson, Ga., was in prison for more than eight years. He now speaks to high school students in Georgia and across the country – over 150 speaking engagements a year – delivering a simple message. Never drink and drive.

“A lot of people get caught up in the moment and think they are OK, or it will never happen to them,” said Sandy, who is now 42 years old and has written a book, “Enduring Regret: Two Different Stories of Drunk Driving, Two Very Different Prisons.” “My hope is people plan before and take less chances.”

Officers across the state will be on high alert and cracking down on drivers who are impaired or distracted. Georgia State Patrol is participating in the Operation Zero Tolerance campaign, a high visibility enforcement program that targets impaired drivers through concentrated patrols and sobriety checkpoints.

Last year during the 4th of July holiday period, Georgia state troopers investigated 150 traffic crashes that resulted in 90 injuries and two fatalities. Additionally, troopers issued 6,367 citations that included 123 DUI arrests. This year, the holiday period is longer, extending through 11:59 p.m. on Sunday.

Bottom line: play it safe and plan ahead, Chafee said.

“There are more options today,” said Chafee. “Not that there was an excuse before, but there is certainly no excuse now.”

MORE: You’ve been warned: The worst times to drive this Fourth of July holiday week

MORE: Where to celebrate July 4th in metro Atlanta without crowds

Enjoy the holidays but have a plan in place to get home safely. (Special Photo credit: Matthias Wachter). For FEA, AA.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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