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Here’s the picture of Shelby County’s roads in 2011: There were slightly fewer accidents and the number of injuries and deaths declined, yet more people were driving impaired.
The four police agencies that cover Shelby County’s highways and byways reported a decrease in overall accidents – 5 percent – but injury accidents declined by 24 percent and the number of deaths by 18 percent (from 11 to 9).
By contrast, though, there were more people driving impaired, with DUI arrests up 10 percent.
Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Meadows, who is an accident reconstructionist, said he thinks the fact that there were fewer fatalities last year could be could be because of a multitude of factors, such as better enforcement and better public awareness.
He cited the most common causes of fatal accidents as driver inattention, excessive speed and people driving impaired.
“We don’t have a great number of any of those; it’s just a mix,” he said. “But those are the top three.”
“Also, newer vehicles have more safety features, such as more airbags, and more also, more people are wearing seatbelts than ever before.”
§ Data collected from the Kentucky State Police, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Shelbyville and Simpsonville showed that:
§ The overall number of accidents decreased from 1448 to 1,368.
§ Injury collisions dropped from 368 to 279.
§ The fatalities occurred most frequently on Interstate 64 (5), but three happened on county roads and one in a field in Waddy when joy-riding teens flipped a jeep.
§ DUI arrests were up from 382 to 422.
§ Approximately 86 were arrested for DUI on county roads, 47 were arrested on city roadways, 4 in Simpsonville and the rest of the arrests were made by KSP. Because state troopers patrol everywhere, it is more difficult to pinpoint the areas of those arrests.
Lt. Jerry Wise, commander of KSP’s Frankfort Post 12, said that one thing that he thinks could have contributed to there being fewer traffic injuries last year is that KSP has stepped up its campaign to try to be more visible in high collision areas, such as the interstate, in an effort to slow drivers down.
“We look for people who are texting, and not seat-belted in, things like that,” he said. “Also, we put out a lot of media blitzes, such as checkpoint announcements, to try to get people to drive more responsibly. Also, it could be that the price of gasoline is slowing people down, because driving more slowly saves fuel.”
But those decreases were not because fewer people were being charged with driving while intoxicated.
Shelby County Attorney Hart Megibben, whose office prosecutes those arrested for driving under the influence, said people shouldn’t be mislead by statistics.
“I don’t think there’s less people driving drunk or more people driving drunk; I just think it’s a matter of enforcement,” he said, echoing comments he made when there was a similar increase in 2010.
Megibben said a big portion of the DUI cases that came through his office last year were from the construction zone on Interstate 64 between Simpsonville and the Jefferson County line.
“That area is being heavily patrolled, and a lot of the DUIs that I have seen is where somebody was stopped for speeding, and lo and behold, there was a DUI to follow,” he said.
In Shelby County, that enforcement has a name: Eddie Whitworth.
A 3-year Kentucky State trooper, Whitworth made nearly half of all the DUI arrests in Shelby County last year – 76 percent of those made by KSP – with 217 DUI arrests and received the Excellence in Highway Safety Award for the highest number of DUI arrests in 2011.
Whitworth, a Shelby County resident who also is a part-time paramedic at Shelby County EMS, is assigned to patrol Shelby and Spencer counties, but he said he made more than 90 percent of those arrests in Shelby County.
“In a week I probably make about three or four, sometimes more,” he said. “I used to be a full-time paramedic, and I have seen a lot of car crashes caused by drunk drivers.
“It’s a growing problem for the community, and one reason there are more is because it’s not just alcohol anymore, it’s marijuana and pills.
“Drivers driving impaired because of prescription pain pills are really becoming a growing trend. Sometimes it’s difficult for law enforcement to detect that in drivers. I’m one of the state’s drug recognition experts, there’s only about sixty or seventy of us certified throughout the entire state.”
Whitworth said some of the things that signal an impaired driver to police are drivers weaving back and forth on the roadway, crossing the center line, going from very high to very low speeds, and running stop signs, to name a few.
Wise, who also started his career in Shelby County and led the state in DUI arrests in 1995 and 1996, said he shares Whitworth’s passion for getting drunk drivers off the highways.
“You go to crash scenes and you see people dying needlessly; it’s just a passion to save lives, and one way to do that is to get drunk drivers off the road,” he said.
“When you see people burnt to a crisp in a crash from drunk driving, and then you have to notify the family, that’s the hardest thing an officer has to do, because there’s no way he can ease their pain.”
Shelbyville Police are preparing to launch an extensive seatbelt usage campaign, and Community Resource Officer Istvan Kovacs said that although more people are wearing seat belts in Shelbyville than the 68 percent who buckling up the last time survey was taken here several years ago, police are still not satisfied with Shelbyville’s current 76 percent.
“Our goal is to save more lives,” he said. “We are going to do our best this summer to catch up to the state-wide average of eighty-two percent.”
Kovacs said that motorists should be aware that simply wearing a seatbelt isn’t enough; it has to be worn properly.
“I have seen more than one person tucking them [seatbelts] under their arm,” he said. “That is not only ineffective in an accident, but also dangerous. It could cause internal injuries.”