The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

Drunk driving numbers concern state, local officials


Last year alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Nebraska reached the highest total in two decades, according to the state’s 2012 annual traffic crash facts report.

This was the only statistic in the report that worried Nebraska Office of Highway Safety administrator, Fred Zwonechek.

“The alcohol numbers were a bit disturbing,” he said.

In 2012, 43 percent of fatal crashes in the state involved alcohol.

The big jump in alcohol-related fatalities, the highest numbers in 20 years, could possibly be an anomaly that will drop back to the usual average of about 30 percent in 2013, Zwonechek explained.

In Cheyenne County, one of the two fatal wrecks in 2012 involved alcohol.

The state is currently campaigning for drivers themselves to report impaired motorists they see on the road. Driving is dangerous, Zwonechek said, a split-second decision can change a person’s life.

Cheyenne County Sheriff John Jenson and his deputies are working to cut down on drunk driving locally through changes in patrol schedules, to ensure that deputies are on the streets during the times when drunk driving is most likely to occur. Now that Sidney has a taxi service, there is no excuse for drinking and driving, Jenson pointed out.

“We need people to be more responsible for themselves and their friends and family,” Jenson said.

Jenson doesn’t think that people in this area usually head out on the town with the intention of drinking and driving. A Sidney resident might go out with plans to have one drink, then end up overdoing it and be embarrassed to call someone for a ride.

“Just don’t take that chance,” Jenson said. “The enforcement factor is out there.”

Although Cheyenne County’s drinking and driving numbers are lower than many other areas of the state, law enforcement are still working to make sure it stays that way.

“I guess we never give up on it,” Jenson said.

The death rate on Nebraska roads in 2012 was 1.1 persons killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, which is a slight increase from 2011, according to the report. The reason for this minor upswing is hard to determine.

“It’s always difficult to speculate,” Zwonechek said.

There was especially mild weather in 2012, which generally encourages recreational driving. Good conditions tend to facilitate high speeds, he said. The numbers also might simply be a result of the higher number of vehicles that were on the road last year than in previous years.

Although fatality numbers were up slightly in 2012, the overall trend in deaths per miles driven is a decline. The state attributes this decline to improvement in vehicle design, roadway engineering, emergency medical services, safety programs, enforcement and improved driver awareness, according to the report.

In 2011, there were 164 fatal crashes in Nebraska while there were 190 in 2012, an increase of 26 crashes. Most crashes that occur in the state only cause property damage. In 2012 there were 11,021 collisions that caused injuries and 19,232 merely resulting in property damage, the report stated.

Fatal crashes made up 0.6 percent of all accidents last year. Injury crashes made up 36 percent and property damage accidents made up the remaining 63 percent, according to the report.

So far, 2013’s fatality count is 4 percent lower than 2012’s, Zwonechek said.

Last year in Cheyenne County there were 172 wrecks, two involving fatalities. Five people were killed in vehicle accidents in Cheyenne County last year and 66 people were injured. There were a total of around 30,000 accidents in the state last year.

Out of the total traffic incidents that caused fatalities in the state, 81 of the 190 had apparent alcohol involvement.

Those between the ages of 15-24 tended to be in more overall accidents as well as more fatal accidents. The fact that more young people got in wrecks in 2012 is not surprising to Zwonechek. He also cited inexperience as the major cause for this.

“They’ll get better as they get older,” Zwonechek said.

Most of those who died in accidents in 2012 were between the ages of 25-34. Males drivers were involved in 75 percent of fatal crashes, according to the report.

Nebraska passed a mandatory seat belt law in 1993. It’s a secondary enforcement law, which means that a citation can only be issued if someone is pulled over for another offense. It has been successful in promoting seatbelt use, according to the report.

Belt use is particularly low in accidents which result in the most severe injuries. Only 50 percent of those who suffered disabling injuries were belted, according to the report.

Around 75 percent of those fatally injured in car crashes weren’t wearing safety belts, Zwonechek said. In a statewide observational study, researchers found that 80 percent of drivers and front seat passengers wore their seatbelts, so these deaths come from that 20 percent who choose not to wear their belts.

Jenson knows that those who refuse to wear a seatbelt are more likely to be injured or killed in a crash.

“We see it every day,” he said. “That’s something we’re enforcing on the traffic detail.”

The sheriff’s office is also ensuring that children are in proper safety seats, through a partnership with police and the hospital. Area law enforcement are also working to bring down rates of speed in the county.

The Cheyenne County Sheriff’s office is working toward higher seatbelt usage in the area through enforcement as well as public awareness.

Males ages 18-24 tend to go without seatbelts and are also the majority of those who drive under the influence, Zwonechek said.

“They tend to be higher risk takers,” he said.

The state combats deaths due to failure to wear safety belts with seatbelt law enforcement, public information and education. NOHS pairs with law enforcement as well as the public health community and employers to encourages Nebraskans to buckle up.

“We’ll work hard to get the percentage of use up,” Zwonechek said.

Those who don’t wear a belt are being selfish, because their death hurts all those around them including family, friends and employers, he said.

“We could cut our fatalities in half over night if everyone wore a seatbelt and people stopped drinking and driving,” Zwonechek said.

Especially with school events going on during the weekend, Jenson asks that drivers be cautious and take the extra time to designate a sober driver or call someone for a ride.

“We’ve had enough tragedy in this area,” Jenson said.


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