Smashed: The toll of driving drunk in Minnesota

In the fight against drunken driving -- miles to go

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune Editor
  • Updated: January 24, 2010 - 12:38 PM

A team of Star Tribune reporters is taking a fresh look at an issue that still alarms.

To this day, I can see the headlights of the old pickup bearing down on my side of the rural, two-lane highway in Pennsylvania.

Behind the wheel was a driver so drunk he had already passed out. I would later learn that he had so many drunken-driving convictions, his license had already been suspended for a decade. But there he was, driving again.

I was a young mother of 30, with two baby girls, driving home from a late-night editing shift. I can remember worrying about who was going to care for my babies as, terrified, I instinctively yanked the steering wheel to the right and ran off the road. His truck clocked my little Honda, swiping it all the way down the driver's side, but leaving me physically unharmed. The police found him passed out in a ditch not too much farther down the road.

Many people, far too many people, are not as fortunate as I was that night.

Every other day, someone in Minnesota is killed in a drunken-driving accident.

Now, on the surface, there's nothing new about drunken driving; it's been a scourge on the roads for decades. This state, like others, has responded with tougher laws and stiffer penalties for those who climb behind the wheel and drive while intoxicated. Those laws have had some impact: The actual number of deaths has trended down over the last quarter-century.

But last year, as one tragic example of a drunken-driving-related death after another made its way into the paper, the editors and reporters in the newsroom decided that it was time to take a fresh look at the depth of the toll on our state. The numbers were startling, even to veteran journalists. They suggest that as a society, we still haven't really come to grips with this.

Some 35,000 people are arrested for drunken driving in Minnesota each year. More than half a million Minnesotans have a DWI on their record. More than 100,000 have had three or more arrests. It begs the question: Why are so many people still driving while smashed in Minnesota?

A team of reporters is taking a sharp look at the stories behind those numbers, examining this issue from the highways, from the courtrooms and from the homes of grieving family members. In addition to these in-depth reports, we will highlight at least one drunken-driving case in print and online each week, and we will host an ongoing community discussion online about what can be done in Minnesota to make our roads safer.

Reporter Curt Brown opens up this community debate today with the heart-wrenching story of 19-year-old Ryan DeZurik, who died just 6 miles from home last summer when a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.346 crossed into his lane at nearly 100 miles per hour. There wasn't even time to react; the driver, wielding a Hummer, might as well have rolled over DeZurik's 1990 Corolla with a tank.

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.

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