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Fatal wrecks increase at alarming rate

When Greenbank resident Ryan Howard lost control of his car on Bush Point Road March 30 and plowed into a tree, he had the tragic distinction of being the seventh person to be killed in a car accident on Whidbey Island this year.

Statistically speaking, that’s an exceptional number of fatal accidents over a three-month period.

In all of last year, seven people died in five car crashes. Two people died on the roads in 2004 and five people died in 2003.

Officials point to two main causes of the deadly trend: alcohol and excessive speed. They say the solution, however, is much more elusive.

“There is no such thing as a traffic accident,” Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said. “There is always a reason. Usually it’s excessive speeds, alcohol or drugs. Putting a cop on every corner isn’t going to stop this problem.”

Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said four out of the six fatal accidents involved impaired driving. It turns out the terrible accident that killed two teenagers in Langley March 13 was caused by a tragic combination of alcohol and speed. The driver, 18-year-old Jayson Jelinek, and passenger Kelly Frantz, 17, lost their lives when Jelinek’s car struck a tree.

People of all ages are drinking and driving. Oak Harbor High School student Seldon Hazelo, 59-year-old Clinton resident John Smith, and 33-year-old Ryan Howard were all killed in separate impaired-driving accidents.

“These are the kinds of deaths we have that are the most preventable,” Bishop said. “That’s five people who didn’t have to die.”

Molly Rice, a 29-year-old Oak Harbor resident, was the passenger in a speeding car that struck a tree on Reservation Road Feb. 24. The driver, 29-year-old Raymond Prokop, was charged with vehicular homicide for allegedly speeding, but alcohol was not a factor.

Jamie Fealey, a 20-year-old Oak Harbor resident, was killed March 28. Investigators aren’t sure what caused her to lose control of her car — possibly dark, slick roads — but alcohol was not involved.

In addition, there have been a number of serious accidents that didn’t result in deaths over the last few months. Just Monday, an Oak Harbor man was seriously injured in a one-car accident on Hunt Road.

The number of fatal and serious accidents is an acceleration of a trend that began last year.

In December, Sgt. Don Ney with the State Patrol announced that troopers patrolling Whidbey will be more aggressive and sneakier, while cutting speeders less slack in handing out tickets.

He noted that the number of fatal accidents have increased, collisions have increased, the population is up, but the number of troopers are down. All of that follows statewide trends.

In an interview Monday, Ney said the number of fatal accidents this year is startling, but troopers are also seeing more fender-benders, as well as serious accidents that don’t result in deaths.

Besides drinking and driving and speeding, he said many drivers just aren’t paying attention. He points out that the bulk of accidents involve island residents.

“They are not attentive,” he said. “There’s a lot to look at on the island.”

Law enforcement officials in the county and on the Navy base are doing what they can to make the roads safer, but they are dealing with limitations.

Ney pointed out that all but one of the fatal accidents occurred on county roads, while troopers are primarily responsible for patrolling the highway. Yet troopers handle the reports on all of the fatal accidents. All of these accidents, big and small, take troopers away from patrolling the roads. Right now, only six troopers work out of the Oak Harbor office, while there are supposed to be nine.

“Recruiting and hiring is not keeping pace with turnover,” he said, noting the rigorous requirements for becoming state troopers.

The Island County Sheriff’s Office has similar problems. Hawley said the limited number of deputies are busy responding to 911 calls and don’t have much time to spend patrolling the roads for speeders or drunks.

Also, he points out that roads on the island are “comparatively dangerous.” The highway and county roads tend to be narrow with nothing separating lanes — except in Oak Harbor.

The Navy base also means there’s a lot of young men, in particular, driving on North Whidbey. Statistically, that’s the group of drivers most likely to speed, or drink and drive.

“There’s a disproportionate amount of Navy people involved in collisions, particularly DUIs,” Ney said.

Last year, two sailors from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station were killed in separate DUI-related accidents, though no Navy personnel were involved in the fatal accidents this year.

At Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, security officials have renewed their focus on preventing and catching drunk drivers, as well as under-age drinkers. Cmdr. Dwayne Korthuis-Smith, the head of base security, is a reservist who was a state trooper before he was “activated.”

Korthuis-Smith has instituted a program called P.A.T., which stands for prevention, apprehension and tracking.

As part of prevention, he said base officials are holding more drinking-and-driving awareness events to educate sailors. He said, for example, many sailors just aren’t aware of their tolerance level — how many drinks will make them impaired.

To apprehend more intoxicated drivers or underage drinkers, he said guards at the gates are learning to look for those individuals as they enter the base. Also, command master chiefs are doing ride-alongs with Oak Harbor police on weekend nights to learn more about the drinking-and-driving problem.

To track the problem, security is working with the State Patrol to determine how many sailors have been arrested for DUI, but haven’t reported it to their command as they are supposed to.

“It’s a big enough problem to be concerned about,” he said.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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