There have always been drunken drivers in our area — they’ve just become a lot more dangerous lately.
Since December we’ve seen a string of terrible, violent collisions on local roads that have left a number of people dead. The first and worst happened on Interstate-280. Police say Michael Gagnon had been drinking in Oregon when he started driving his pickup truck against traffic. Motorists began frantically calling police, warning them that a driver was barreling the wrong way, but it was still too late. Shortly before Interstate-280 ended, the truck slammed into a mini-van carrying a Maryland family.
The pictures from that wreck are painful. The van mangled on the side of the road, Christmas presents spilling out the back. Worst of all, an infant seat lying in the street. Paramedics and firefighters fought to help the family, but it was too late. Equally painful are the pictures of those lost in the crash: Bethany Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Haley Burkman, Lacie Griffin, and 2-month-old Vadie Griffin.
Gagnon, whose blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, suffered minor injuries. He has since pleaded not guilty to his crash-related charges.
Earlier this month we saw another terrible accident that killed three people. The Ohio Highway Patrol said that Albert Michalak was intoxicated when he crossed the center line and crashed into another vehicle on Route 2 in Jerusalem Township. Michalak died in that crash along with two people from the other vehicle: Armando Cantu Jr. and 8-year-old Arturo Lopez.
Both collisions also had survivors who now have to recover from their injuries, wondering why their loved ones died and they were spared. They also leave us shaken. We know that it could be any one of us driving down the road with family, when a car comes out of nowhere, killing you and your children.
What amazes me is that it takes crashes of this magnitude for many people to take drunken driving seriously, and then only for a short time. Their voices join the chorus calling for tougher standards on bars that serve the obviously intoxicated, denouncing anyone who would put lives at risk so wantonly. Then time passes and the outrage subsides. In a matter of months it’s all-but-forgotten as people move on to the next worry.
So, why is it so easy for people to ignore this issue? Part of it, I suspect, is the fact that in many cases drunken driving is treated like a parking ticket. For celebrities who get pulled over after partying, there’s almost a blithe routine to the whole thing. They get their drunken mugshot taken, issue a public apology, and get a slap on the wrist from the courts. We all see this.
But there’s another reason why I think the outrage fades so quickly. While a lot of people can relate to the innocent victims, I think a lot of people can also relate to the drunken driver.
I’m not saying that everyone has driven drunk — far from it — but a great many people have made the dangerous decision to drive home after having one too many. They aren’t blitzed, but they aren’t sober enough to drive, either. Thinking back to when I was younger, back in college, there were times when my friends had a few drinks and thought they were OK to drive. I didn’t stop them. They may not have been over the legal limit, but looking back, I can’t be sure. That bothers me now, knowing that my lack of action could have had deadly consequences if things had gone differently. There’s just too much at stake.
The truth is that if we want accidents like this to stop, the outrage over them has to continue long after the wreckage is cleared and the court case is over. We have to make it clear that drunken driving won’t be tolerated, from either our celebrities or the people in our community. We need to be willing to stop people from getting on the road if we have to. We need to remember what can happen because of one bad decision — and remember the families that are torn apart because of them. They can’t forget, and it’s not right that we can.
Karl Rundgren is managing editor and co-anchor of FOX Toledo News.