Posted: Dec 30, 2013 3:53 PM
Updated: Dec 30, 2013 3:53 PM
HOUSTON (AP) Lonny Haschel remembers delivering the news to a man that his family had been wiped out in a traffic wreck.
"The most difficult job is to go knock on someone's door and say a loved one is not coming back anymore," the Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant said.
Like people throughout the world, many Texans will gather Tuesday to ring in the New Year with booze-fueled parties. Despite increased warnings about drinking and driving during the holiday season, though, the state is nearly certain to add another notch to Texas' ignominious streak of having at least one road death per day for more than 13 years.
The last day without a traffic death in Texas was Nov. 7, 2000, state Department of Transportation figures show. Since then, more than 45,000 motor vehicle fatalities have occurred. It's believed to be the longest streak ever for Texas, where state records on traffic fatalities go back to 1940.
California, the only state more populous than Texas, most recently had a traffic fatality-free day in September 2009, said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Reasons for the Texas streak are varied, but a "big three" stand out, according to Fort Worth-based Haschel.
"What we see are speed, failure to use seat belts and impaired driving," he said.
Nearly one-third of all the fatalities since November 2000 are attributed to alcohol.
"We're No. 1 in the entire country, and people don't think there's a problem," says Carol Levin, whose 26-year-old son and his girlfriend were killed in 2006 by a drunken driver who ran a red light at a Houston intersection.
The 22-year-old driver of the other car is serving 10 years in prison for two counts of intoxicated manslaughter but is parole eligible. The driver could have been sentenced to up to 20 years behind bars, but Texas judges have wide discretion in deciding sentences. A 16-year-old earlier this month in Tarrant County received probation for a four-fatality wreck.
"The drunks are the ones who get off," Levin said. "And we're the victims and we're victimized and victimized and victimized. Holidays, birthdays are impossible. You have to grieve all over again."
On Tuesday, safety efforts included 15 agencies on patrol across Central Texas looking for drunken drivers as part of an initiative called Arrive Alive. In Houston, the city's public transit agency, METRO, offered free service from evening into early Wednesday.
California says more than 2,000 sobriety checkpoints a year help reduce its death toll, but Texas hasn't used such roadblocks since 1994 when a state appeals court ruled that they violated the Texas Constitution because there were no statewide guidelines.
Daniel Hottman, an assistant pastor at a Montgomery church, was killed when Amanda Doyle slammed head-on into his family's car in February 2008. Hottman's wife and three children were seriously hurt.
"'Nothing will happen to me, no way.' That's what I'm sure everyone is thinking," Doyle, 29, said from a Gatesville prison, where she's serving 20 years for intoxicated manslaughter and four 10-year terms for intoxicated assault.
She doesn't remember what happened, but acknowledges it was a "horrific" act. Her blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit.
"He was a good man," she said of her victim. "They did missionary work. Everything they taught their children came back to God. They did not deserve this at all."
If there's any good news, it's that the fatality rate is falling despite the continued daily occurrences.
Experts credit better roads, safer cars and increased seat belt use, although police reports show that more than 45 percent of those killed in 2012 weren't buckled in.
Doyle's parents are raising her 7- and 9-year-old daughters, who know why she's incarcerated. She said she's told her children that prison is like school, except that instead of a principal, she has a warden.
"My story: It's true and it can happen to anybody," Doyle said with her voice cracking. "When I go home, I can still do things with my life. I can teach my kids things. Mr. Hottman, his kids don't get that opportunity."