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A sobering message: ‘It just takes one’

It happens more than you know, and probably more often than most drivers would like to admit. But how many times have you grabbed a cocktail — or two — after work and driven home? Or gone out on Friday for “just one” and then got on the freeway? While these questions are rhetorical, they did make me think following week six of the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department’s Citizens Academy.

Drunken driving in the state of Minnesota carries hefty fines as well as the possibility of jail time, license plate revocation and/or suspension of your driver’s license, among other not-so-flattering consequences (such as incredibly high car insurance or the interlock ignition). While I have never been in the unfortunate situation to be facing a DWI, 109 drivers found themselves arrested for DWI in 2013 in Cottage Grove.

“It just takes one,” police officer and investigator Shawn Ebeling said during his presentation.

After an officer has pulled over a driver who is suspected to be under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, there are a number of field sobriety tests administered to determine if the driver is capable of operating a vehicle. The first, which Ebeling said is the most telling, is the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. The officer uses a light or a finger to track the movement of the driver’s eyes. If they bounce, jerk or show other signs of irregular movement, drugs or alcohol are likely a contributing factor. Ebeling said the horizontal gaze nystagmus test is about 90 percent accurate.

The second test is the “walk and turn.” Pretty self-explanatory. The driver must count and walk heel-to-toe along a straight line, usually the road’s fog line. No flailing hands for balance, no falling off, no skipping steps. This test, he said, is about 70 percent accurate.

The third test, which isn’t necessarily the best method for a person like me who has horrible balance in general, is the one-leg stand. The driver must lift their leg and count to a number designated by the officer. With about a 60 percent accuracy rate, Ebeling said if he gets to this test, he most likely has already decided what to do with the driver.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet a local woman named Melissa whose life was drastically altered following a DWI arrest. She stumbled her way through the field sobriety tests and was arrested. She struggled finding stability in her life, which she said was spiraling out of control. For her, the ticket and jail time was a sobering jolt that helped get her life back on track.

But for some drunk drivers, the ending isn’t as hopeful.

In 2012, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported that 2,644 people suffered injuries in alcohol-related crashes. And 104 did not survive. Ebeling said the numbers are declining, but often go in spurts.

“We’re on a downward swing now but it usually tends to increase again,” he explained. “But our numbers are decreasing due to the commitment of our department in enforcing the law.”

He said he’s noticing more cars spending the night in bar parking lots “because drivers here know that we aren’t messing around.”

To get a glimpse through the eyes of a drunk driver, we had a laugh putting on the “beer goggles,” which were disorienting and dizzying. A classmate could hardly walk in a straight line. While we had a few laughs passing around the goggles — which simulate an intoxication level nearly twice the legal driving limit — there was a realization that there are drivers that get into a car in this condition. And there can be deadly consequences.

The South Australian government released a profound anti-drinking and driving campaign several years ago alongside a graphic five-minute public service announcement. The video shows drivers launched through windshields, vehicles smashing head-on at high speeds, bicyclists run over and a myriad of other circumstances that can happen when a driver is drunk behind the wheel.

In the background, R.E.M’s hit “Everybody Hurts” illuminates the very real outcomes that driving intoxicated can produce. While it was painful to watch, it solidified the message that it really does only take one; one drink, one moment, one decision to change everything.

Reporter Emily Buss is participating in the eight-week Citizens Academy, hosted by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department. Follow her reports weekly in the Bulletin.