Crackdown on impaired drivers starts Friday, extends through Labor Day

08/13/2014 4:00 PM

08/13/2014 4:00 PM

Wanda Stewart has no recollection of the moment her first child flew from her arms when a drunken driver slammed into the back of her car, which she had parked 20 yards from the edge of K-96 in western Kansas so she could breastfeed her 3-month-old son.

She never got to hold her baby again and only vaguely remembers attending tiny Scott’s funeral a few days later while lying on a hospital gurney, medication dulling the pain of several fractured ribs and a pelvis fractured in three places.

But more than 30 years after that unusually bright, warm February day 13 miles east of Tribune, Stewart says she still carries the physical and emotional scars left by a drunken driver.

It was a Friday the 13th in 1981, but “really, superstition had nothing to do with the death of Scott,” she said. “It was just a poor decision of one person to drink and drive.”

The 18-year-old woman was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .24 – three times the current legal limit – and also had smoked marijuana, blood tests showed. She was charged with driving under the influence, was fined $100 and was allowed to continue driving with some restrictions.

“Today, the penalties would be much more severe,” said Stewart, who now lives in El Dorado and spoke at a Kansas Department of Transportation briefing in Wichita to announce the annual campaign to crack down on impaired drivers.

“You Drink. You Drive. You Lose” runs from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1. Law enforcement officers nationwide will be working overtime to patrol for impaired drivers, Wichita police Lt. James Espinoza said.

“We’re about making arrests and being visible to reduce drunk driving,” Espinoza said.

Through July 31, there have been 1,266 arrests this year for DUI, police records show. Three of the 14 traffic fatalities in Wichita in 2014 have involved drinking.

There were 1,886 arrests for DUI in Wichita last year and 2,142 in 2012. Six of the 27 traffic fatalities last year were linked to drunk driving and five of the 23 deaths in 2012.

More than 75 percent of the drunk-driving traffic fatalities in 2012 occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., Espinoza said, which is why the enforcement crackdown will emphasize nighttime efforts such as sobriety check lanes.

Nearly half of the drivers between the ages of 18 and 34 who died in crashes over Labor Day weekend in 2012 were drunk, KDOT spokesman Chris Bortz said.

That statistic “just jumped off the page,” he said.

Seeing DUI statistics start to climb again alarmed Stewart, prompting her to get more involved with reminding the public about the high price of DUIs.

“The impact on our families was devastating,” she said. “Dreams were destroyed that day.

“Our loss was the hole that was ripped in our hearts. We were forever changed.”

It was nearly 10 years before she could stand to listen to audio from her baby boy’s funeral, and she still has a couple of Scott’s favorite toys.

At 31/2 months, he was “full of life” and weighed a stocky 131/2 pounds.

He had “quite an infectious little laugh,” she said, and “big, beautiful blue eyes.”

She has become involved again with the Kansas DUI Impact Center and hopes to become the agency’s director someday.

“I myself need to be doing more,” Stewart said. “We all need to be doing more.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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