Don't get hammered

Oak Harbor Police Officer JimCovert has been involved with Island County law enforcement for 21 years, and he says he still doesn’t know how to politely tell a wife or mother her loved one isn’t coming home.

“As soon as you show up on their doorstep they know something is wrong. How do you delicately tell them their son, daughter or husband isn’t coming home and that they need to contact the coroner’s office?” Covert said.

Every year, just before the holiday season, the annual alcohol-related traffic fatality numbers are announced by local, state and national agencies in an effort to sober the public. At first glance they read like any other statistic:

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, of the 42,166 total traffic deaths in the nation during 2001, more than 40 percent, 17,448, were alcohol related. MADD also reported that in Washington alone, of the 649 traffic deaths in 2001, 43.3 percent, 2 81, were alcohol related.

“It’s a tragedy, but the real tragedy is how soon it’s forgotten when someone dies or lives but is maimed and they have to live with that for the rest of their lives -- we simply forget,” Covert said.

Despite the numbers suggesting why people shouldn’t drink and drive, every year people do it again -- people who head out for the holiday festivities, partake in the fun, and drive home. The New Year holiday is one of the worst for drunk driving statistics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that from 6 p.m. Dec. 29, 2000 to 5:59 a.m. Jan. 1, 2001, 357 people were killed in traffic accidents. More than half of them were alcohol related.

Covert sees the faces represented by those statistics. Despite the fact he is a guest panelist for the Impaired Driving Impact Panel for Island County (IDIPIC), don’t confuse him with someone who likes to talk. He’ll be the first to let you know he has no happy stories to tell.

“I know about having a person die in my arms. I’ve tried to give mouth-to-mouth to someone and realized I couldn’t create a seal because every bone in their face was crushed, and I’m sitting there knowing the best medic on the island is on their way, but the person dies before they get here,” he said.

Covert is just one of the volunteers for Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County, a creative sentencing tool that local agencies such as courts, adult and juvenile probation, alcohol treatment centers, Navy commands, and others now use for people convicted of DUI or MIP (Minor in Possession). It is also now a requirement for Oak Harbor, Coupeville and South Whidbey high school students attending driver’s education classes. IDIPIC Coordinator JoAnn Hellman is hoping to get the word out about not just drunk driving, but also impaired driving, which can include alcohol, prescription drug and over-the-counter drug use in any combination that effects driving ability.

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley, also an IDIPIC panelist, cautions, “Don’t forget driving under the influence means just that. Even one beer or glass of wine can effect your ability to drive, especially when mixed with a cold tablet or prescription drug.”

Robert Bishop, Island County coroner, warns that impaired driving “takes on a lot of faces.”

“It’s not just alcohol. It’s drug use, prescription, over-the-counter, or any other kind, it’s even being tired or being under emotional stress, and it can all be deadly. When I talk at the IDIPIC panel I explain what impaired driving is and I compare it to a loaded gun, and ask people if you would walk down the street pointing it at people,” Bishop said.

The NHTSA reports that Washington state DUI fatality rates are down 13 percent from 1997 to 2001. However, not all statistics show a decline, and some even indicate an upswing in the trend. The NHTSA reports that in 2000 America experienced the largest percentage increase in alcohol related traffic deaths on record as 17,380 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes — an average of one every half-hour.

“DUI is still a dangerous reality on our roads, and it doesn’t have to happen ... to you, to me, to anyone,” Hellman said.

Bishop sees what he calls the “ending factor” of impaired driving.

“Of all the deaths my office handles, impaired driving deaths are the most preventable,” Bishop said.

Even for Covert, dealing with the effects of impaired driving is not an easy task.

“It’s not just those two people who are driving who are involved. At an injury accident it’s not just the person taken away in an ambulance. That’s someone’s mom, sister, brother -- their family is effected to, and you can only go to so many of these injury or fatality scenes without having it effect you too at some point,” Covert said.

Impaired driving inevitably effects Island County residents. The NHTSA estimates three in every 10 people will be involved in an alcohol related crash at some point in their lives. In Island County, DUI arrests have edged up from 191 in 2002 to 195 in 2001, according to Hellman.

In just under the last two months, Nov. 1 - Dec. 27, the Washington State Patrol reports 16 DUI arrests in this county and the Oak Harbor Police Department reports 30. Exact numbers from the Sheriff’s Office were not available for that period, but last year deputies made188 DUI arrests.

While the additional patrols during the “Drive Hammered, Get Nailed” DUI emphasis period may comfort some people, Covert encourages people not to drop their guard.

“People who drink and drive are an accident waiting to happen. There’s a fatality right around the corner, and the sad part is there are innocent people who are completely unaware they are going to be a victim and they have their lives taken away from them in a split second,” Covert said.

Covert doesn’t enjoy talking to the IDIPIC panels or about drunk driving in general; after all, the emotions are buried for a reason. But Covert says he knows that if one person chooses to get a cab, walk home, or call for a ride after they’ve been drinking then that’s his “pay day” that makes it all worth it.

“If you don’t drink and drive the life you save could be a family member’s or your best friend. If you do, the one you lose could be your very own,” Covert said.

You can reach Whidbey News-Times staff intern Cynthia Woolbright at or call 675-6611.

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