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Problems that go with alcohol impact everyone

Kathy vividly remembers the early morning of Oct. 14, 2006.

Her husband Jack doesn’t remember a thing.

That’s because it was the day their truck was hit head-on by a drunk driver.

Along with their 4-year-old granddaughter, they were heading from their home in New Richmond to the family cabin near Superior. They had worked late and didn’t leave until around 10:30 p.m.

They were a quarter of a mile from their last turn when their lives changed.

“All of a sudden … there’s this truck driving on the wrong side of the road,” Kathy recalled. “I went, ‘Oh my God, he’s coming right at us.’ It was like three seconds.”

Jack tried to swerve his Chevrolet Avalanche out of the way of the oncoming Chevrolet Tahoe, but it was too late.

Jack was pinned in his vehicle. Kathy, who sustained minor injuries, tried to help him, but had to wait until emergency crews arrived to extricate him. Their granddaughter Isabelle was uninjured, sleeping in the back seat.

Jack was flown to a hospital in Duluth, Minn. His left arm was broken; his right thumb had been nearly severed off; the bone on his right leg ripped through the skin, and part of his left hip was shattered.

Jack spent 10 months recovering from the initial injures. He had another surgery last year to replace the rod in his leg, and the family is still burdened with the memories of that day.

The Duvals’ story is one of the more dramatic examples of how people’s lives are affected by alcohol.

Nearly everyone is affected by Wisconsin’s relationship with alcohol, from crash victims like the Duvals, to those who work in the court system, from law enforcement officers who deal with alcohol-related calls, to taxpayers who front the bill for several alcohol-related expenses.

Dealing with drinkers

Chippewa Falls police officers know first-hand how alcohol can affect people.

On a recent Wednesday night, officers were called to respond to a Canal Street tavern in Chippewa Falls. The bar was hosting a popular DJ and had drawn a large crowd. The tavern’s manager had called police to make sure people on the street weren’t getting out of hand.

One officer responded immediately, trying to calm a group of about 60 people. As more officers arrived, they witnessed one woman throwing up across the street from the bar.

A man and woman were arguing over custody of their son; the woman was only 19 years old and was cited for underage drinking.

One man was arrested on a Chippewa County warrant.

Such alcohol-related calls are not uncommon for Chippewa Falls Police.

“I would have to say that when you get into past midnight, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, probably the vast majority of police contacts involve somebody who has been consuming,” Chief of Police Wayne Nehring said.

An officer working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift estimated about 95 percent of his late night and early morning calls are alcohol related.

He recently responded to a call where a woman was trying to enter a house because she thought she lived there. She slammed the door on the hand of a 15-year-old boy during a confrontation with him. The 20-year-old woman was given her 11th underage drinking citation.

“A lot of times intoxicated people are much more irrational,” Nehring said. “Some become very loud … boisterous … argumentative.”

Officers have learned to deal with people who are not cooperative. When someone has been drinking heavily, even the most minor calls can become dangerous. For example, Nehring said just asking a person to get rid of an alcoholic beverage can cause them to quickly become confrontational.

“Situations can really escalate,” he said.

Chippewa Falls police responded to 161 calls dealing with liquor laws in 2008, and there have been 86 such calls through July of this year. Liquor law violations include offenses from underage drinking to open containers.

Police arrested 156 people last year for driving under the influence. Through last month, there have been 106 operating while intoxicated citations.

Plenty of other types of calls also involve people who have been drinking.

“A lot of the calls, they don’t start out as alcohol-related necessarily, or at least easily identified as alcohol-related, but as we investigate the issues, certainly alcohol is a factor,” Nehring said.

At night, many domestic, prowler, public urination and criminal damage calls involve an intoxicated subject. Other calls are made because a person is worried about someone who has been drinking.

Once someone has been arrested, they move on to a court system that would be practically empty were it not for defendants who are there because of alcohol or drug use.

Pamela Radcliffe, director of Pathways, a substance abuse prevention agency in Chippewa Falls, estimates that as much as three out of every four crimes in Chippewa County involve alcohol.

And those figures probably don’t change much in other parts of Wisconsin. The state has 50 percent more arrests for operating while intoxicated than the national average, and more than three times the national rate for liquor law arrests.

Everyone pays

Even if you’ve never had so much as a sip of alcohol in your lifetime, you’re paying for those who do.

One estimate says the average taxpayer spends about $650 per year for alcohol-related costs, Radcliffe said.

“Whether you drink or not, we pay for those negative sides of alcohol,” she said.

Besides the aforementioned court system, costs return to the taxpayers in several ways.

“We all end up paying for that because we’re paying it in our taxes. We’re paying it in the costs of prisons and jails and the salaries and the insurance,” Radcliffe said.

Thousands are injured and killed as a direct result of alcohol use in Wisconsin each year. In 2006, at least 1,678 people died and 5,654 were injured as direct result of alcohol use.

That same year 33 of the 55 recreational vehicle deaths were alcohol-related. More than 48,000 people were hospitalized for alcohol-related reasons in 2006, with 535 of them in Chippewa County.

Those hospitalization costs add up. In 2002, charges for alcohol-related hospitalizations in Wisconsin were $595 million. That number jumped to $857 million in 2008.

Some of those charges were paid by insurance companies, and some by patients, but others fell back to taxpayers. And those hospitalizations lead to higher insurance premiums.

“When health care insurers deny claims due to drinking and driving, providers still treat the patients but are not compensated. The public ultimately pays for this care through higher premiums,” says a University of Wisconsin Health Department publication.

Other taxpayer costs include the placement of children removed from homes of alcohol abusers and costs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Since Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of women of childbearing age (18-44 years old) who binge drink, and as half of all pregnancies are unplanned, alcohol use is affecting babies, even before they are born.

“A lot of babies are being exposed to alcohol during critical times of fetal development,” said Chippewa County Public Health Nurse Carol Lendle.

Human factor

For the family, it’s not the monetary costs that matter, but that alcohol almost cost them their lives.

The driver who hit them had a 0.3 blood alcohol level at the time of the crash, or more than four times the legal limit for driving. He had fallen asleep while driving when the collision happened.

The man, who Kathy only identified as Greg, was charged with three counts relating to injuring each family member while under the influence, one count of OWI and one count of inattentive driving. The man, who suffered two broken legs, served 60 days in jail, Kathy said. He had no prior criminal record, and became distraught when he learned Isabelle was in the vehicle.

“He just was beside himself to know not only could he have killed Jack and I, but he could have killed our 4-year-old grandchild,” Kathy said.

Because the truck frames were the same and had similar contact spots, the effects of the collision were lessened.

“If there would’ve been a smaller truck or a car, there would’ve been fatalities,” Kathy said.

Her daughter, April Burback of Eau Claire, said the whole family has been affected by the crash.

“It’s just one of those things where your life stops, but the world doesn’t stop moving around you,” she said.

The family has been more careful with alcohol now, always making sure they have a designated driver.

“When you’re in a social setting, you wonder what people are doing, how they are getting home,” Burback said.

As a family and consumer education teacher in the Augusta School District, Burback has begun talking to children and teens about the crash, hoping to deter them and their parents from drinking and driving. She said she hopes to make similar presentations in the future, when she’s more comfortable talking about the crash.

For now, the family is just thankful everyone survived.

source: Chippewa Valley Newspapers

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