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What will it take for us to take drunk driving seriously?

On January 12, 2005, Bridgeton (MO) Officer Scott Armstrong was on routine patrol on Highway 370 in the early morning hours.  He was following a large truck when it suddenly swerved.  A drunk driver was driving the wrong way on the highway.  As the truck avoided it, Scott's patrol vehicle was struck head on.  Officer Armstrong didn't have time to react and could do nothing to save his life.  The 31 year-old officer left behind a loving family, including a small child.  Officer Armstrong was one of eight officers that died as the result of a drunk driver in 2005.  Hundreds of officers are injured each year as the result of drunk drivers.

On October 14, 2004, Saint Louis Metropolitan Officer Matt Browning was working outside of Busch Stadium.  Matt was doing the job he loved.  As he was arresting a robbery suspect, a vehicle struck him.  Officer Matt Browning's life would be altered forever.  Matt lost both of his legs in the collision.  Another example of a tragedy attributed to drunk driving.

P-1 columnist Travis Yates said St. Louis area is tired of tragedy.  On January 22, 2006, a rally was held at Kiener Plaza in downtown Saint Louis.  The rally was sponsored by the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Missouri chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors.  It was designed to support Officer Matt Browning and bring focus on the issue of drunk driving and the dangers to law enforcement on the roadways of America. 

Read the related article

Overland Corporal Scott Barthelmass was the National Law Enforcement Officer of the Month for September 2004 and served as the Master of Ceremony.  Scott has played an integral part in the Memorial's Drive Safely Campaign.  Speakers included Lieutenant Col. Roy Joachimstaler of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Terry Geigle of Missouri COPS, Captain Travis Yates of Police One and Matt Browning.

Sunday's rally  brought attention to not only the impact drunk driving has had on law enforcement but the general public as well.  In 2004, 40% of the fatality collisions in Missouri were alcohol related.  On January 27th, the suspect responsible for Officer Matt Browning's disabling injuries will be sentenced.  Tulsa Police Captain Travis Yates put the importance of that sentencing in perspective at the rally:  

"The days of DUI drivers being given a reduced sentence or a small fine must end.  We've tried to be nice…We've tried treatment, education and giving them rides; It is time to get serious."

Read Yates' speech

Although the U.S. has been taking drunken driving more serious in recent years, Yates said it is clear television and other media campaigns aren't getting the message across. What we thought would work isn't.

Look at jail time for convicted offenders - offenders can get arrested for drunk driving five or six times and still not receive a felony conviction. What kind of message are we sending out?

Yates said he believes mandatory jail time will force most people who don't want to miss work or time with their families to rethink driving drunk.

"How long do we have to go before we get serious about this?" Yates said. "Such light sentences for seven, eight or nine offenses - look at juries, judges and prosecutors - lots of people have (family or personal) experience with it and don't want to give serious sentences."

Yates said we have to change the way we punish drunken driving: Instead of punishing what happened, punish offenders based on what could have happened. Just think about all the times people don't get caught - every single one of those could have become a manslaughter conviction.

"Officers have to be vigilant. You cannot have discretion when it comes to drunk drivers," Yates said. "We are in the same boat as prosecutors. We have to take it just as seriously as we expect others to take it.

Yates said officers have to be vigilant on patrol, especially late at night. He also recommended taking special precautions such

  • Drive on the right of the lane. If someone goes through the center of the road there is less of a chance they will hit you.
  • Don't follow cars too closely. That way if the car in front of you is in a wreck, there is less of a chance you will drive into a collision.
  • Drive defensively, always expecting the worst

"The St. Louis community should be proud," Yates said. "They have rallied to help a fellow officer and have stood up to make a difference.  We can only hope that in this case, the punishment to the suspect will be as serious as the injuries to St. Louis Metropolitan Officer Matt Browning."

Editors note: John Mittelbuscher was given a total of three years in prison Friday in court. Thanks to Angela Lanham, a senior victim advocate for St. Louis MADD, for the information

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