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Back to Archives | Back to July 2006 Contents 

Humanizing Motor Vehicle Collisions

By James Schweitzer, Director, South Carolina Department of Public Safety, Blythewood, South Carolina


housands and thousands of driving under the influence (DUI) collisions occur every year in South Carolina and across the United States. Many of the fatal DUI collisions are single-vehicle collisions in which the driver is the sole occupant, attracting much less media attention but still ripping a family apart nonetheless. For every person who dies in a DUI-related crash, thousands upon thousands more suffer permanent disfiguring and long-term injuries every year.

Statistical Perspective
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone every 31 minutes and injure someone every two minutes.1 In 2004, the latest year for complete statistics, South Carolina law enforcement officers made more than 16,000 DUI arrests. However, it has been estimated that as many as 2,000 alcohol-impaired driving trips occur for every arrest. In South Carolina, one person is killed or seriously injured in a DUI-related collision every 2.2 hours.

Rural, tree-lined roadways and failure to wear seat belts increases the likelihood of a DUI collision leading to a fatality. Many of these collisions are single-vehicle collisions where the vehicle leaves the roadway striking a tree or other fixed object, ejecting the driver or passengers or both.

Educating the Public
SCDPS implemented DUI enforcement programs several years ago, including the use of specialized DUI enforcement teams. Highway patrol troopers were paid to work overtime enforcement focusing solely on DUI. In addition, the agency purchased a mobile blood alcohol-testing unit where blood alcohol tests could be administered at the site of the arrest.

Unfortunately, severe state budget cuts this decade resulted in a diminished number of state troopers available on overtime to proactively pursue drunk drivers and take them off the highways. At the same time, the department began considering the need to extend the public DUI education program and prevent the occurrence in the first place. Today, the department is pursuing several avenues for educating the public about this crime.

Fatality Memorial Web Site
In developing the fatality memorial Web site, SCDPS accepts the premise that it is easier for society as a whole, and individuals personally, to shrug off the impact of motor vehicle collisions when the fatality is represented collectively by impersonal statistics. As a department, part of SCDPS mandate is to furnish statistical data about collisions to the public. Statistical data alone, however, make it easy to think of motor vehicle collisions as someone else's problem. South Carolina wanted to illustrate that the people who die on the state's roadways look a lot like someone from one's own family. SCDPS created the Fatality Memorial Web site (www.schp.org) in 2004 for two reasons:

  • To put a face to the statistics by turning these tragedies into a strong, poignant safety message for new and experienced drivers

  • To give a voice to grieving families by allowing them to share memories of their loved ones and connect with other families experiencing a similar grief

Even with all of the collisions people see in the news, most people do not fully appreciate the scope of the loss. Many of the memorials on the Web site involved people who were killed by drunk drivers or individuals who were drinking and driving themselves. Parents, schools, and families have used this site to educate their at-risk teen drivers about the deadly results of poor driving choices.

One DUI-related story on this site illustrates the power behind these messages. Eighteen-year-old Kelli Lewis was one of three fatalities in a 2001 DUI-related collision. Her mother, Pam, shares her story:

    . . . Kelli said "Mom, I think I am going to die soon" and she did-that night. We never got to say "I love you" (something we did no matter how mad we were at each other). This will always haunt me. Kelli and girlfriends went to a party. She got drunk, didn't leave with her designated driver, was a passenger in a car that was racing another car.

    The car she was riding in went off the road into the air, took out three trees, threw her out, landing on top of her in someone's front yard. She was on her way home . . . three miles from our house. All three children in the car died. We then got the knock at the door and our lives would never again be the same.

    Kelli was loved and from a good family. We miss her every day. Kelli paid the price for her actions that night. I only want others to be responsible for their part.

    I will always be Kelli's mom, and it is my job to always take care of her. I will not stop talking about what happened and what didn't happen.

    A great movie about this incident and two other stories about drunk driving fatalities, called "Grave Decisions," can be obtained by calling S.C. Prosecution Office at 803-3430765. Please feel free to contact me if you have lost a loved one to drunk driving.

As SCDPS personnel began to edit and post entries such as this to the memorial site, staff realized that there were some powerful messages waiting to be told-messages that might spare someone else from experiencing such a tragedy. SCDPS sought to involve these families in helping prevent future deadly collisions.

Bringing It Close to Home
In 2004 SCDPS partnered with several families represented on the Fatality Memorial Web site to tell their stories in a series of multimedia presentations, which is now the South Carolina Department of Public Safety curriculum. The unique characteristic of this safety curriculum is that it is not a generic portrayal of the dangers of drinking and driving; rather, it was made for South Carolinians in a way that hits close to home and resonates with the state's citizens. It makes people realize, "This isn't someone else's problem; this particular story happened just a few miles from here. This could happen to me or my family." These DVD presentations show South Carolina statistics, South Carolina landmarks, and South Carolina crashes to create a connection with the viewer.

The graphic presentations make extensive use of pictures from fatal collisions in our state to illustrate the carnage that results from poor decisions behind the wheel. Most compelling are the stories from mothers who lost their children on the highways.

The Highway Safety Curriculum
The DUI presentation includes several components. It opens with a montage set to the rock group Van Halen song "Right Now." The montage shows a series of photographs depicting collision scenes with pictures of bodies from real South Carolina collisions. It leads into DUI laws in South Carolina and wraps up with a mother, Joy Batchelor, telling her story of losing all three of her boys in a single vehicle collision and illustrates just how horrific DUI crimes can be.

She tells about her estranged ex-husband, who wanted to take her children fishing. She was reluctant to let them go, but they were just going one mile down the road, and her sons begged her to let them go. Ms. Batchelor finally agreed. Instead of taking them on the planned fishing outing, however, Michael Batchelor took all three of her sons, ages 15, 13, and 11, and three of their young friends on a drinking binge.

He became intoxicated to the extent that he could no longer drive. He forced the oldest son, Ashton, who was also intoxicated, to get behind the wheel. Ashton did not have his driver's license and was unfamiliar with the vehicle. The young boy lost control of the vehicle and crashed one mile from Ms. Batchelor's home. She ran to the scene to discover that 15-year-old Ashton was trapped under the vehicle and had died at the scene. Brandon, 11, died the next day. Two days later, the youngest, Drew, died as well.

SCDPS began showing this curriculum in high schools, at churches, and before other civic groups around the state every day. Ms. Batchelor partners with SCDPS on a number of these events to personally share her story with children about the consequences of drinking and driving and not buckling up. SCDPS began enlisting the families featured in the curriculum to speak at gatherings along with SCDPS officers. They, along with an entirely new group of families, began participating regularly with the community relations' officers as safety presenters. This also provided an avenue for the families to work through their grief and allowed the presentation of compelling messages everywhere the program is presented, from news conferences to safety presentations.

Initially, SCDPS officers used the curriculum, but once other law enforcement agencies and interested parties, including the military, began seeing the professional quality of the presentations, these agencies sought to use the DVD curriculum for presentations. SCDPS now trains and certifies other law enforcement agencies and the military in the use of this curriculum. It allows consistency in the safety messages being disseminated by all law enforcement agencies in South Carolina.

Families of Highway Fatalities
Historically, SCDPS and the highway patrol have partnered with families to tell their stories during news conferences or a particular media campaign, but there was no sustained effort to parlay their stories into a real-life safety message until after the creation of the curriculum.

SCDPS also realizes an obligation to these families beyond the occasional inclusion in events. Motor vehicle collisions claim more lives than most other diseases or types of violent death. SCDPS observed the need for advocacy and support groups exclusively for the families and the desire to organize a way to share the knowledge the families gained to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other families and for the families to support each other through the grieving process. In 2005 SCDPS formalized efforts for working with victims' families and created a group called Families of Highway Fatalities. Families of Highway Fatalities is composed of four components:

  • Highway Safety Speakers' Bureau

  • Safety Ambassadors

  • Peer Team

  • Education

These families have become a powerful voice for safety in South Carolina, sharing their stories of loss in their communities in hopes of preventing future tragedies.

Because the Fatality Memorial site, the safety curriculum, and Families of Highway Fatalities group are so new, it is hard to quantify statistically the impact that they have had on collision and fatality numbers in the state. The department does plan to measure these programs' effectiveness on DUI arrests and DUI deaths once a measurable time period has passed. For now, SCDPS is simply guided by the overwhelmingly positive feedback we receive from our audiences.

All of these programs represent a new and unique approach to saving lives on the highways. SCDPS believes that sustained and strong enforcement initiatives, coupled with powerful and effective safety messages, are the key components in positively affecting driver behavior and ultimately making highways a safer place to travel. ■

If you would like to view SCDPS safety curriculum or learn more about any of these programs, call Sergeant R. K. Hughes or Sherri Iacobelli at the South Carolina Highway Patrol Office of Community Relations at 803-896-7920.

1 National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, traffic Safety Facts, 2004, (www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/)

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From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 7, July 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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