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It was about 28 years ago that my sleepy head kept me from getting my neck permanently wrenched.
It was the fall of 1985 and my family and I were riding home from a fair in our new car. My eyes were heavy, so I slouched down to rest my head against the back seat. A few seconds later, I was jolted forward three times, each time with a thunderous sound from behind.
We’d been rear-ended by a drunk driver. And were it not for my bad posture and need for a nap, I’d have joined my parents and brother in making regular visits to the chiropractor.
The fellow who’d hit us apparently had just broken up with his girlfriend and spent the afternoon drowning his sorrows in martinis — and lots of them. When he blew, his blood-alcohol content was over .30.
I was lucky; but my poor dad was bedeviled with back and neck injuries for the better part of 10 years.
When, I have wondered, will drivers finally get the message that drinking and driving destroys lives?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn that time may finally have arrived.
As I’ve reported a few times over the past year and a half, La Salle County set a record low in DUI arrests in 2012 and is on pace to set a new low this year, the likes of which prosecutors had once dismissed as unattainable.
But it’s not just happening in La Salle County. An analysis of data from the Secretary of State’s Office that 86 of 102 counties have reported declines in DUI arrests between 2009 and 2011, the most recent data available for all Illinois counties.
Even more encouraging, all but four of the 16 counties where DUIs climbed are places where the population does not exceed 20,000. That’s significant because small counties typically have small DUI caseloads where minor increases can skew the DUI rate. That was true in Marshall County, where the DUI rate climbed by 3 percent thanks to one more DUI arrest in 2011 (36) than in 2009 (35), hardly an alarming surge.
Of the remaining counties, Grundy, Henry, Sangamon and Stephenson all posted increases but only the latter two had DUI totals ratchet up by 10 percent or more.
Various explanations have been offered for the decline, all of them compelling.
Cumbersome penalties and restrictions including those blow-and-go devices required now of all DUI convicts appear to have had a deterrent effect. Anybody forced to jump through today’s hoops and then doesn’t wise up clearly has a problem the courts cannot fix.
The numbers have also dipped since the Great Recession. In an era when Americans have been rightly afraid of losing their jobs, the thought of incurring thousands in fines and having to tell your boss you can’t drive for six months has had an obvious chilling effect.
But I’d also like to believe that perhaps Americans simply are getting it. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has spent decades hammering lawmakers to strengthen DUI laws and imploring motorists to exercise restraint or at least turn over the keys.
Could people be finally getting it? When 86 Illinois counties are turning in promising data, it’s tempting to believe there has been a sea change in motorist behavior.
Here I cling to some hope, because I and my loved ones could have been among the DUI casualties.
I’ve had a few close shaves, but none stands out in my mind as vividly as the day Mr. Martini plowed into our car and set off a domino effect that damaged or totaled three other vehicles.
I can still picture the EMT pressing his face into my dad’s window to ask if we were OK. I can hear the disbelief in my mother’s voice as she reported her shows were blown off by the impact.
I remember hearing chills when told the drunk driver had hit our gas tank and that it could have ignited.
And I can remember not wanting to open my eyes when the impact roused me from my catnap. I was afraid of what I might see.
It is a feeling I never want to relive again. It is something I want no other motorists to have to experience for themselves.