THE BUZZ: Sobering Stats

By on August 2, 2017

A fatal crash Monday highlights Wyoming’s high rankings for driving under the influence.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The passenger in a southbound Ford pickup on Highway 89 involved in a head-on collision died Monday evening from injuries he sustained in the accident. Ryan Coulter, 24, was the victim of the second DUI-related accident in the valley in one month. The driver, Ethan Jackson, 25, of Idaho was traveling through Snake River Canyon at about 3:55 p.m. when he crossed into the other lane, causing a collision with a northbound traveling vehicle, according to Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Matt Brackin.

Jackson, who was driving home from his job in Wilson, had one other passenger in the vehicle. That person was treated overnight for injuries and released Tuesday morning. Jackson was the only one unscathed.

Terry Sullivan, the driver of the northbound vehicle involved in the accident, was released from the hospital Monday evening. She was the only one wearing a seatbelt, Brackin said. The mule she was hauling behind her truck was uninjured.

In addition to being arrested for driving under the influence of a controlled substance, Jackson is also charged with vehicular homicide. “We could tell he was under the influence of a controlled substance,” Brackin said. Jackson failed a sobriety test on site, and results of a blood test are pending.

Brackin happened upon the accident that shut down the highway during rush hour from about 4 to 6 p.m. “I was just trying to get home, like everybody else that night,” he said. “I rolled up on it before it was even dispatched.”

The scene he drove into was one of destruction—both trucks suffered “quite a bit of damage”—but also one of community support. “I was probably there within three minutes of it happening, and there were already 20 people outside helping people out of cars, staying with them, making sure they were OK,” Brackin said.

Witnesses said neither driver was excessively speeding, but the speed limit in the canyon is 55 miles per hour. That’s fast for a head-on, Brackin said.

Jackson was also driving so far in the other lane that his truck collided on the passenger side, which Brackin said is unusual in a head-on collision. It was also fatal for Coulter.  Jackson appeared in Lincoln County Circuit Court Tuesday afternoon. Lincoln County Clerk Sandy Hawkes said Jackson’s bail has been set for $30,000 cash or surety bond.

Coulter’s death is on the heels of another DUI-related fatality almost exactly a month prior. Together, the accidents underscore Wyoming is among the states ranked highest in the nation for deaths relating to DUIs.

On June 30, Bob Arndt was killed in a head-on collision on Highway 22. Arndt was well loved in the community, known for his ventures as a food entrepreneur. Residents felt his loss right away. Rudy Isla-Mejico, the driver of the other vehicle, was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and vehicular homicide and is still awaiting his preliminary trial.

DUI-related deaths are indeed all too common in Wyoming. Last year, there were 32 alcohol-related fatalities on Wyoming roads, out of 112 total road fatalities, according to Wyoming Department of Transportation. That’s 29 percent. Alcohol was also a factor in 14 percent of crash injuries.

In 2017, Wyoming has seen 83 accident fatalities, compared to 54 by the same time last year. Twenty-eight of those, roughly one third, are suspected DUIs, Tom Prichard, Wyoming Highway Patrol crash team supervisor captain, said.

The Cowboy State had the fourth highest drunk driving death rate in the country in 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control. The same report found 2.2 percent of people in Wyoming report driving after drinking too much, compared to 1.9 percent nationally. The rate of death per 100,000 people in drunk driving accidents in 2012 was 46 percent higher in Wyoming than the nationwide average.

Meanwhile, drug-related DUI deaths, like Coulter’s, claimed even more lives in 2015 than alcohol, CNN reported. They’re harder to identify, the article noted, because officers are not always trained to recognize the symptoms of intoxication, and there are no field tests, like a portable breathalyzer, to indicate how under the influence drivers are. Still, Brackin says he can tell when someone is under the influence. And the consequences of such a decision are always high.

“It’s bad enough traveling at 55 miles per hour toward each other,” Brackin said. “If you’re under the influence of anything, even if there’s no legal intoxication, nothing that meets the threshold, you’re still impaired.” Anything that impairs reaction time, Brackin said, doesn’t belong on the road.

“It hurts too many families.” PJH

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