For the first time in Tennessee, drugged driving crashes have killed more people than alcohol-related wrecks, a rising statistic that local prosecutors say underlines the opioid epidemic quickly gripping the entire state.
“These folks are on prescription drugs driving around, and their level of impairment is way above where it should be to be operating vehicles,” said Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. “It is a scary prospect.”
The number of drug-related deaths shot up almost 90 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to data from the Tennessee Highway Patrol that looks into the leading factors in fatal DUI crashes.
In 2015 alone, some 174 people died when the driver tested positive for drugs or officers determined drugs contributed to the crash.
And during that same year, 136 died in drunk driving crashes and 51 in wrecks from distracted driving.
The leading drugs, according to prosecutors, are opiates and benzodiazepines – sometimes legally prescribed, sometimes not.
“Those type of drivers seem to be the ones we’re looking at in vehicular homicide and serious DUI cases because they’re very impaired because of the drugs that they’re on,” Allen said.
The epidemic, prosecutors added, is ripping apart families, just as state officials are working to stop it.
And for parents like Mary Lou and Jack Winkler, it’s “been like walking into a nightmare.”
The Winklers lost their daughter, Rebecca, in June 2005 after an impaired driver on Central Avenue Pike near Beaver Creek Lane smashed into her car.
She was a 16-year-old rising Temple Baptist Academy junior at the time. She was the kind of “pleasant kid to be around,” a shy girl on her way to a summer job just before the fatal morning crash.
“It was the worst day, will always be the worst day,” said Jack Winkler. “I tell people I can dream about Rebecca and she’s alive in the dream, but I wake up, and it’s waking up to a nightmare. Because the truth is she’s dead, she’s gone, she’s never coming back.”
The driver, Thomas Rand Jr., eventually pleaded guilty to a number of charges including DUI and reckless vehicular homicide, according to court records. He was sentenced to prison but has since been released.
“He was on drugs,” Jack Winkler told WBIR 10News. “(He) never touched his brakes, hit her head on (and) flipped his Jeep Liberty upside down.”
Rebecca went into a coma and never woke up.
That was 11 years ago.
Since then, the problem of drugged driving in Tennessee has only gotten worse, authorities say.
Prosecuting such cases, however, is complicated, time consuming and more costly than prosecuting those that involve alcohol, according to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office.
Although a .08 blood alcohol level is the hard mark to establish alcohol intoxication for those behind the wheel, no clear line exists for drivers operating on equally powerful prescription drugs.
“It makes it more difficult to prosecute these cases,” Allen said. “And actually there’s some talk of (the state Legislature) to start addressing that. But the question is at what level do you become impaired? And that’s what we as prosecutors have to prove, that you are driving impaired.”
In the meantime, Allen said county leaders are working to become more involved on the “front end of prevention.”
They’re looking into grants, new programs and partnerships that might help halt addiction and stop further crashes from happening.
The Winklers agree with the move.
For them, a drugged driving crash is not an accident but, rather, something that can be stopped.
And they want something done, so another family can be spared from the same grief they feel.
“It’s fresh every day because it never goes away,” Jack Winkler said. “We’ve been given a life sentence of no Rebecca, and literally that’s what you live with for the rest of your life.”
He added: “An accident is something that’s out of your control. Accidents happen every day of the week. To get behind the wheel of a car impaired or distracted is 100 percent preventable.”
If you want to be part of the solution, or know someone who is already working to make changes, let us know. by emailing us 10Listens@wbir.com.
Cherokee Health Systems
2018 Western Ave.
Knoxville, Tn. 37921
E. M. Jellinek
130 Hinton Ave.
Knoxville, Tn. 37917
Helen Ross McNabb Center, Inc. at
Child and Family Tennessee
901 E. Summit Hill Drive
Knoxville, Tn. 37915
1-800-445-6538 or 865-524-7483
Helen Ross McNabb Center, Inc.
201 West Springdale Ave.
Knoxville, TN 37917
65-523-8695-adolescent day treatment
Hope of East Tennessee
188 Raleigh Road
Oak Ridge, Tn. 37830
Parkwest Medical Center
6800 Baum Drive
Knoxville, Tn. 37919
Ridgeview Psychiatric Hospital
240 W. Tyrone Road
Oak Ridge, TN 37830