A majority of alcohol-related fatalities involve first-time offenders.
Amy Wells shivered in an emergency room, covered in shards of glass, her mind foggy with alcohol, trying to remember what happened and how she got there.
She stopped a nurse. "Excuse me?" she said. "Can you tell me what happened?"
The nurse looked her straight in the eye: "You were in a head-on collision and you killed somebody."
Wells was stunned. I'm not the kind of person who does something like that, she thought.
Wells, then 24, made the dean's list in college. She worked in a bank. She had been in Students Against Driving Drunk.
When a state trooper walked in, Wells knew she had made a terrible mistake.
Like 60 percent of alcohol-impaired drivers in deadly crashes, Wells had never been charged with DWI before. First-time offenders killed 288 people -- including themselves -- on Minnesota roads from 2005 through 2007, according to state records.
Repeat offenders spur outrage, but the majority of Minnesota's alcohol-related fatalities involves first-timers who aren't on the justice system's radar.
Some are problem drinkers who routinely drive drunk. Others are social drinkers who get behind the wheel even after over-imbibing. Some had no idea they were legally drunk after downing a few beers.
In a national survey released in 2008, nearly a quarter of adult Minnesota drivers admitted driving under the influence of alcohol the previous year, ranking third behind Wisconsin and North Dakota. More than 21,000 people in Minnesota were caught driving drunk for the first time in 2008.
"Alcohol is the drug of choice of our culture," said University of Minnesota law Prof. Steve Simon, who studies DWIs. "It's the substance we use for sociability."
Lost for two hours
Wells intended to act responsibly on St. Patrick's Day in 2000. She was going out with friends and family, and planned to let them drive. But Wells took a nap and overslept, forcing her to catch up with the group at a friend's apartment.
They celebrated at a bar. Wells doesn't remember how much green beer she drank.
When the group parted ways at the apartment, Wells hopped in her car for the five-minute ride to her place up Interstate 35W. Her friends thought she was sober enough to drive.
As Wells hit the road, her dashboard clock read 11:45 p.m. The next time she looked, it said 1:30 a.m. Wells was on a freeway, but saw no houses or city lights. She turned around.
Suddenly, her car started spinning. Wells looked up. Her windshield was shattered, her roof gone. She saw the stars.
Wells had been driving the wrong way on the interstate near Northfield. She smashed head-on into a car driven by Juan Garcia, 23, who was killed. Garcia's wife, three months pregnant, was following behind in another vehicle and witnessed it all.
Garcia's wife declined to comment.
Police found that Wells' blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. She spent 16 months in jail, spread over three years, and lost her license for 5 1/2 years.
Wells said she may have driven drunk once or twice before, but not routinely. She wishes she had never gambled at all. "When you take someone's life, you never move on," said Wells, who can't drink under the terms of her probation, which ends in November.
It doesn't take a deadly crash for most drunken drivers to change their behavior. About 60 percent of people who get one DWI don't get another, according to state records.
Most first-time DWIs are misdemeanors with a maximum of 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and two years probation, but few spend more than a night or two behind bars. The state automatically revokes an offender's license for 90 days, or 30 days with a guilty plea, often allowing trips to work.
For some one-time offenders, however, the consequences never seem to end.
Bruce, an unemployed mechanic, got caught driving drunk 17 years ago. He has had a clean record since, but Bruce said the DWI prevented him from getting jobs to fix school buses and other vehicles. He didn't want his last name used while he's job hunting.
At age 29, Bruce went to a friend's Halloween party in Bloomington and drank the punch. At 1 a.m., he switched to water. At 4 a.m., he thought he was OK to drive.
When a police officer stopped him for speeding, a breath test showed he was just over the legal limit, Bruce said.
The state restricted his driving privileges for a while. His wife had to bundle up their 5-year-old son every night to ferry Bruce to his second job. "I was feeling like I was a teenager and I had to have someone take care of me," he said.
He vowed to change. With one exception, Bruce said, he has not driven after drinking since the arrest.
Now 46, Bruce is trying to get his record expunged. Laid off in March, he has been turned away for some jobs over zero-tolerance policies.
"It might seem like this stupid little mistake that you don't realize will haunt you forever," Bruce said.
'I wanted to turn time back'
Most people who drive drunk are lucky enough to elude the law. Conservatively, drunken drivers can hit the road anywhere from 88 to more than 500 times before getting caught, according to various experts and studies.
"They're going to the bar every Saturday night and they're driving home and they're not stopped," Simon said. "They kind of learn 'I can do this and get away with it.'"
The legal limit for a driver's blood-alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent. Guessing wrong can have tragic consequences.
Ann Marie Martinson, 55, kept topping off her glass from a box of red wine as she cooked dinner one night in 2007. It was a big day: She had just been notified that the divorce ending her 20-year marriage was final. Martinson decided she wanted to be around other people, so she climbed into her Dodge Durango and headed toward a Hinckley casino.
"I left relatively sober, I thought," she said. "I mean, I don't know what a .08 is."
Construction forced a detour, and she got lost. The more she drove, the drunker she felt. "I know that I'm impaired, but I'm, like, I don't know what to do," Martinson recalled.
She missed a speed-reduction sign, then a stop sign. "The next thing I know I'm spinning, the airbags are deployed and I'm knocked out," Martinson said.
When she came to, she realized she had been in an accident. Another car was upside down, the passenger's lifeless arm stretched onto the pavement. "I just kept saying no," Martinson said. "I wanted to turn time back."
Mary Schlangen, a 35-year-old veterinarian from Two Harbors, was killed when Martinson crashed into her car, crushing her and fracturing her skull. Schlangen had been riding to a family reunion with her husband, Mark, their two children and their dog.
Mark was hospitalized for about a week with a cracked sternum, broken ribs and other injuries. The children, ages 7 and 4, had seat-belt bruises.
When Mark woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, family members broke the news that Mary was dead. Mark's heart rate skyrocketed, prompting staff members to administer more drugs. "They had to tell me the same story and watch my response, I guess, three times or so," Mark said.
A blood test showed that Martinson had an alcohol concentration of 0.12 percent. She pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide and spent eight months in jail. She is serving 10 years of probation.
Martinson always thought of herself as a responsible and casual drinker. She warned her children not to drink and drive. Now she anguishes over the fact that her mistake cost Mary Schlangen her life and robbed Schlangen's children of a mother who loved to host costume parties and dance. Schlangen even wrote and illustrated a children's book about losing a pet.
"I can't make this better," Martinson said. "I can't make it right."
Mark Schlangen wants people to take drinking and driving more seriously.
"I've become acutely aware of this happening to many people," he said. "It is frustrating that it appears that we still treat it as ... an unfortunate accident and I'm having a harder time seeing it as an accident."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102