Rural volunteer firefighters train on patient extrication in motor vehicle rollovers.

Folks who drive rural roads get used to dodging deer, turkeys, and drivers who pass on the double yellow. You develop some pretty good relexes on the two-lane, but they may not keep you from becoming a part of this statistic: Two out of three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Every two minutes, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash. And through no fault of your own, your entire life can change.

It happened to me on a cold, clear Friday evening in February of 1998. A friend and I were traveling to a basketry workshop in Iowa in the middle of a three-car caravan. Near the Linn County, Iowa, line, a north-bound grain truck was stopped to make a left turn. The impaired driver of a full-size pick-up truck behind the grain truck swerved into the southbound lane. I saw his headlights as he barely missed the friend in the car ahead of me. I’ve seen those headlights many times in my nightmares over the years. I don’t remember the impact, but I must have been screaming because shards of windshield glass were embedded on the inside of my mouth.

As a former EMT, I knew what would happen after the crash. But it’s one thing to be in a vehicle holding spinal stabilization while volunteer firefighters use JAWS to peel back the roof of a car, and another when you’re the patient. I remember the kindness of the EMT who cared for me during extrication, and being very cold, and the helicopter ride, and my friends joining me in the emergency room, and the pain of the morning after in the hospital, and months of rehab. But I don’t remember when I learned that the driver who hit me was drunk.

That night was not his first time driving impaired. An average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before his first arrest. This was my guy’s second arrest. For that, he was convicted and sentenced to 60 days with work release.

I, on the other hand, have had 18 years of PTSD, physical pain, facial scars, an unreliable knee, and anger. After all these years, I’m pretty used to the impaired balance, and the facial scars are masked by the lines of age. The pain from my injuries is now mixed with pains that might have developed anyway with age — it’s hard to tell which is which. My PTSD is less a problem as the years pass. And the anger? That’s hard to let go. But it’s been tempered a bit over the years as I’ve seen the problems of rural drunk driving from other perspectives. Here’s what helped changed the narrative for me.

A medical flight crew responds to the scene of a motor vehicle accident in rural northern Wisconsin.
A medical flight crew responds to the scene of a motor vehicle accident in rural northern Wisconsin.

Second chances. Much of my anger was focused on the fact that his first drunk driving conviction didn’t seem to deter the guy from drinking and driving the night he hit me. He had a second chance, and he blew it. But some people make better use of their second chance. I respect that. And I respect the employer who made allowances that let a friend of mine keep his job after a DUI. No one was physically injured in that incident — a first-time offense in a state that treats a first-time DUI as a traffic violation. Still, the penalties and the fear of job loss were enough to have a lasting impact on my friend, who knows he was lucky to get that second chance.

Families suffer. Eighteen years ago, I was deeply offended when the prosecutor explained the plea deal for the guy who hit me. That second DUI was classified as an aggravated misdemeanor. The driver got a 60-day sentence. As it was explained to me, work release privilege was included in the deal to keep from extending the penalty to the man’s family. His wife and kids would suffer if he lost his job. At the time, I felt it would serve him right if they did. It certainly felt like his life was less affected by his actions than mine was, that his family was getting more of a break than mine was. But in the 18 years I’ve been able to walk this earth because I didn’t die on that road in Iowa, I’ve let go of the notion that a spouse can do much about a persistent drinker’s impaired driving. “Persistent drinking drivers” drink and drive again and again, and tend not to be deterred by information or education or the prospect of a DUI conviction or the pleading of loved ones. I’ve seen neighbors who fit in this category, and not a thing anyone could say would change their behavior. In my case, I still believe the sentence was a slap on the wrist for a repeat offender. But I’m no longer quite so ready to throw his family under the bus. And I pray his now-grown children remember his incarceration in a way that prevents them from making DUI a family tradition.

It’s a community problem. For much of the past 18 years, my anger has centered on the choices that man made: He chose to have a few drinks on his way home from work and, facing imminent rear-end collision with a bigger truck, he chose to hit my small station wagon instead. I still feel he is responsible for those actions. But I also think communities bear some responsibility. Social groups that accept or condone certain behaviors contribute to the problems that result from them. For example, binge drinking is public health nightmare in the Midwest, New England, the District of Columbia, Alaska, and Hawaii. In Wisconsin, it’s estimated that a quarter of adults binge drink. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will drive after drinking. But in rural areas, safe ride programs are less common, and social acceptance for having “a few too many” is all too common. It’s all fun until someone gets hurt, or at least that seems to be the prevailing attitude. And that’s an attitude we have to change at the community level.

It’s a rural problem. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the statistics on rural motor vehicle crashes are sobering. About 19% of people in the U.S. live in rural areas and only 33% of vehicle miles traveled occur in rural areas, but more than half of crash deaths occur in rural areas. In 2013, there were 10,065 people in the U.S. killed in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Rural areas accounted for 54% of those fatalities. Thirty-one percent of all rural traffic fatalities were alcohol-related. As the Pew Trusts reports, in rural areas people tend to drive faster so crashes are deadlier, and opposite-direction traffic is rarely separated on two-lane roads. Safety features like guard rails are less common, while road hazards like wildlife abound. There are fewer people to call for help after an accident, and help is likely to be farther away. And drivers are more likely to have been drinking.

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Gentler lessons. I knew what PTSD was before I got hit by a drunk driver. Our river rescue team had been through critical incident stress debriefing after a body recovery, so I recognized the signs and sought help. I remember sobbing as I told the counselor, “I know I’m supposed to be learning something from this experience, but I can’t figure out what it is.” She said to me, “You know, it’s OK to pray for gentler lessons.” It was many years later before it occurred to me that I could also pray for gentler lessons for other people. Including drunk drivers. Particularly people with DUI convictions who live in rural areas. Because what might be seen as gentler lessons can be effective in making lasting behavioral changes. Here are some of the ways rural areas are responding to that prayer.

Safe ride programs. The Isanti County Safe Cab Program in Minnesota is cited as a model for rural counties. In 10 years, it has provided more than 7,000 rides to more than 13,000 individuals. From 2006 to 2013 Isanti County experienced a 67.8% decrease in DUI arrests, and the average Blood Alcohol Levels (BAC) of bar patrons pulled over by police decreased by 15%. The program is funded by participating bars, a local beer distributor, and a community fund.

Staggered sentencing. Isanti County also developed a sentencing model that lets repeat DUI offenders get a portion of their sentence waived if they prove they can maintain their sobriety. Typically, incarceration is broken into two or three periods. After serving the first period, the offender is released on probation with a Home Electronic Alcohol Monitoring (HEM) device. It’s their responsibility to provide a breath sample, typically three times a day. If any sample tests positive for alcohol, the penalty is generally immediate incarceration for the remainder of the sentence. The program has contributed to a 30.6% reduction in recidivism, and saved the county an average of $3,500 per offender in reduced jail time costs for waived sentences.

Treatment court. Some states now have “DUI Courts” that combine alcohol addiction treatment with intense court supervision. These programs typically begin with a clinical assessment of the offender’s medical and mental health status, social support systems, and motivation to change, and the development of a treatment plan. Monitoring for compliance may include urine testing, breath tests, and transdermal tests, home and workplace visits, and regular appearances before the judge. A guiding principle of DUI courts is that offenders must solve their own transportation issues — which is not a simple matter for rural offenders.

Because nearly every state revokes or suspends a person’s driving license upon conviction for an impaired driving offense, the loss of driving privileges poses a significant issue for those individuals in DWI Court programs. In many cases, the participant solves the transportation problem created by the loss of their driver’s license by driving anyway and taking a chance that he or she will not be caught. With this knowledge, the court must caution the participants against taking such chances in the future and to alter their attitude about driving without a license.

— The Guiding Principles of DWI Courts

24/7 sobriety program. A South Dakota project requires participants to report to the local sheriff’s office twice a day for a breath test to demonstrate their sobriety. In cases where offenders’ work schedules or long distance to the testing site preclude in-person testing, offenders are issued a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) device, an ankle bracelet that continuously measures alcohol excreted through the skin. In either case, the bottom line is this: If you skip or fail, you go to jail. In addition to a reduction in recidivism, the stated benefits of the program include:

  • Mom/Dad and kids are safer.
  • Public is safer.
  • Defendant will spend less time in jail.
  • Treatment prospects improve.
  • Defendant’s employer is happy.
  • The offender pays the cost of the program.
  • There is no cost to taxpayers.

Ignition interlock devices. Last year Illinois enacted stricter laws that require people with two or more DUI offenses to install ignition interlock devices — breathalyzers — in their vehicles. In the past, repeat offenders had their licenses suspended and probably drove anyway. With a breathalyzer installed, though, the vehicle will not operate until the driver proves sobriety. As an Illinois State University op/ed writer states:

Without a monitoring system in place, offenders might have felt the need to drive in order to fulfill everyday tasks, like getting to work or buying groceries. The new law eliminates the dangers and temptations of waiting periods by making breathalyzers mandatory instead of trusting offenders to police themselves. The removal of waiting times for special permits helps people who live in rural areas with little public transportation and poor people who have little job security. With waiting periods of no driving, these groups were almost forced to drive with invalid licenses to keep their jobs and livelihoods.

Clerical help. Gentler lessons and second chances won’t produce positive results in all cases. That’s when law enforcement agencies — rural, urban, suburban, frontier, and inter-planetary, as far as I’m concerned — have an obligation to stay up-to-date on reporting DUI offenses to crime databases. That may not be the highest priority in understaffed rural departments, and I sympathize. But no law enforcement agency wants to be under the stink that settles when a couple of kids are killed by a repeat offender who was able to skirt escalating DUI penalties because his driving history was not available in different jurisdictions.

The Google Factor. Driving history may not always be available to law enforcement, but it’s not hard to Google the person who almost killed you. I’ve been doing that periodically for 18 years. So far, I’ve found no evidence that he has had a subsequent DUI. I hope that means in 1998 he made his second chance work.

Donna Kallner lives in rural northern Wisconsin. Another lesson she learned from the crash in 1998: Anything loose in a vehicle becomes a flying object on impact. She still drives a small station wagon, but when traveling now she rigs a net to protect her from her cargo.

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