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Published October 04 2012

Unacceptable acceptance: As alcohol crash deaths fall in US, they shoot up in North Dakota

WEBSTER N.D. - A rainy night on Easter weekend. A cluster of lights on the road that didn’t look right. The sickening realization that one of the cars in the wreck ahead contained a dead man – and the other contained Renee Loehr’s brother and three sisters.

The youngest, 11-year-old Becky, survived. Ramona, 15, had gone through the windshield and was dead at the scene. Rita, 21, was crushed by the steering wheel as the car crumpled like tin foil. She died in the ambulance. Renee had to identify her body at the hospital.

Robert, 12, went into a coma and never woke up. The family took him off breathing machines a few weeks later.

The other driver was named Robert, too. He was 28, a schoolteacher and an Army veteran. He’d been passing through the area, stopping at small town bars along the way and drinking at each one.

On this particular stretch, a two-lane road in a town about 12 miles north of Devils Lake, he tried to pass another car at 90 miles per hour.

Instead, he sideswiped the car, crossed the center line, barreled head-on into another, and ended his own life and three others.

Renee was a freshman in high school. When she came upon the accident, she was driving home with a boy from her first date.

It took her years to talk about it, and years more to process the event. Nearly four decades have passed since it happened. Laws and attitudes have changed. Advocates have fought to brand drinking and driving a crime and a scourge.

But over that time, thousands of other North Dakota families have had to confront the same horror Renee Loehr did that night – and it’s still more likely to happen here than almost anywhere else in the developed world.

Deadly and accepted

By almost any measure, North Dakota has one of the most acute drunken-driving problems in the United States.

It’s somewhere in the top five among states for drunken-driving deaths per capita, depending on the data set. It’s somewhere in the top three for deaths per vehicle mile traveled. The proportion of fatal crashes in North Dakota that involve alcohol is tied with South Carolina for the highest in the nation, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Drunken-driving deaths in the U.S., in turn, are among the highest in the industrialized world. Most countries have much lower blood-alcohol limits and stricter penalties for drunken drivers, and crackdowns in recent years have sharply cut drunken driving in many nations.

Today, North Dakota has about as many drunken-driving deaths each year as the nation of Ireland, which has a population of about 4.5 million people.

Even as drunken-driving crashes have declined steadily nationwide, they’ve increased in North Dakota. Nationally, the rate of alcohol-impaired driving deaths has fallen by 25 percent over the past decade. In North Dakota, it has climbed by nearly the same amount.

Last year, 66 people died in 56 alcohol-related crashes. Another 576 people were injured, and 6,600 arrests were made – a 50 percent increase from a decade ago.

The state has made gains in myriad other areas of traffic safety: seat-belt use, child seat use, alcohol compliance. But drinking and driving has remained stubbornly steady.

“We just haven’t seen the numbers move,” said Robyn Litke, coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition of the Red River Valley. The group, part of Fargo Cass Public Health, focuses primarily on traffic safety issues.

In describing North Dakota’s drunken-driving numbers, Litke doesn’t mince words: “They’re terrible.”

But she said the problem is a symptom of a larger issue of rampant alcohol use and abuse.

North Dakota ranks No. 5 in the nation in alcohol consumption per capita, according to a 2011 report from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

And the state’s consumption has been rising steadily over the past two decades, climbing by nearly a third since the early 1990s. In categories like binge drinking and underage drinking, the state perennially is among national leaders.

“I think our state doesn’t have a DUI problem,” Litke said. “We have an alcohol problem.”

That issue is compounded by a heavy reliance on car travel. Much of the state’s population is rural and has poor access to public transportation – which is an afterthought for many, even in urban areas.

Each year, North Dakotans travel the sixth-most highway miles per capita in the nation, and the most of any Midwestern state.

Keith Ternes, Fargo’s police chief, said the state has struggled to convince people that mixing the two activities, both part of the state’s cultural fabric, is unacceptable.

“What we have here is an incredible level of acceptance when we talk about impaired driving,” said Ternes, who has been an outspoken advocate against drunken driving. “People, generally speaking, don’t see this as the incredibly hazardous issue that it is.”

He said many people are slow to condemn the behavior because they’ve done it themselves and didn’t get into an accident or get arrested.

The difference between the number of people who say they’ve driven drunk and the number of people arrested means as many as 19 of 20 drunken drivers are never caught, based on a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that 17 million people drive drunk at least once a year.

Figures cited by Mothers Against Drunk Driving are even starker: The organization says people will drive drunk nearly 80 times before they’re caught.

Ternes said the lack of urgency on the issue is hard to fathom. He likened drunken driving to standing in the middle of a busy street and firing a gun into traffic.

“There isn’t a person who wouldn’t say that is incredibly dangerous,” he said. “Put a person behind a wheel that’s intoxicated, now that vehicle becomes somewhat of an unguided missile that creates every bit the potential to hurt or to kill somebody, and somehow we’ve taken the edge off.”

‘Spinning your wheels’

A recent high-profile fatal drunken-driving crash in North Dakota, a wreck on Interstate 94 near Jamestown that killed four, looked a lot like the one that killed Renee Loehr’s siblings 39 years ago.

A 28-year-old man who had come from a bar drove the wrong way on the highway and crashed head-on into a car carrying a West Fargo family of three – Aaron Deutscher, his wife, Allison, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle.

The driver, Wyatt Klein, and the Deutschers all died at the scene. Allison Deutscher was pregnant.

The similarities – and the fact that the same tragedies were still taking place so many years later – hit home for Loehr.

“That just really floored me,” she said.

Mark Nelson, the safety division director for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, is frustrated to think that as far as the state has come over the years, nothing has really changed.

Nelson spent 32 years in law enforcement, nearly 30 of them with the highway patrol. Over that time, the rate of fatal crashes involving alcohol hasn’t wavered.

“I left my career out of law enforcement feeling that as much effort as we put into it, we have not made any headway,” he said. “It just seems like you’re spinning your wheels.”

The Deutscher crash has garnered attention and prompted calls for tougher laws, but Nelson said he’s not sure what those should be or if they would make a difference.

Neither is Loehr. In spite of her own losses, she has a hard time labeling drunken drivers as villains or pushing for heavy punishment.

She’s seen the issue from both sides. Her older brother struggled with drinking and driving himself – even after the crash that killed his siblings.

“You’d think it would just be an automatic wake-up and make it stop, but when it’s a disease, it’s not so simple,” she said.

She said people who regularly drive drunk don’t just put others at risk, they place enormous stress on loved ones who worry about their safety.

And drunken drivers who hurt or kill someone often must live with deep emotional scars of their own.

“I always thought with the drunk driver that killed my sisters and brother, I always thought if I were him, I would have felt lucky to have died,” she said.

For survivors like her, there’s no such relief – just a lifetime of hurt, confusion and shattered illusions of security.

Loehr remembers walking into the bedroom she shared with another younger sister the night of the crash. The sister was asleep, and Loehr remembers looking at her and realizing her world would fall apart when she awoke.

“I remember thinking it was Easter morning and she was going to wake up excited to look for her Easter basket,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502