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Revelers urged to prevent impaired driving

HOLLIDAYSBURG — When he was a young state trooper in Erie County, Craig Amos and another trooper visited a nicely appointed house a little after midnight.

The woman who answered the door thought the two officers might have been responding to a neighborhood complaint about her dog making noise outside.

She got an inkling of the real purpose of their visit when Amos’ partner asked whether they could come inside, and would she please sit down.

“I can still hear her scream,” said Amos on Wednesday at PennDOT’s District 9 headquarters, where he helped deliver a holiday message intended to discourage area residents from impaired driving.

People who drink alcohol need to craft their holiday celebrations so they’re safe — arranging for designated drivers, calling for Uber or Lyft before they go to a party and especially afterward or limiting themselves to one drink with dinner, said Amos, now regional DUI program administrator of the Pennsylvania DUI Association, and Altoona police Sgt. Matt Plummer.

Friends need to look after friends, while party hosts, bartenders and waiters need to watch for people who’ve had too much, Amos and Plummer said.

“Make smart choices,” said PennDOT spokeswoman Monica Jones. “Drinking and driving ruins everything.”

Impaired driving kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. annually and 300 in Pennsylvania, Amos said.

About three times as many are seriously injured as are killed, he said.

Those comprise not broken bones and stitches, but brain injuries and lost limbs, he said.

The lower volumes of traffic associated with COVID-19 hasn’t helped, said Amos, who added the percentage of impaired driving arrests and the number of serious crashes has increased with the pandemic.

It’s not just alcohol and illegal drugs that have been the issue, but also prescription drugs, including those used according to the recommended dosages, Amos and Plummer said.

Just because a driver has taken the correct amount of a prescription drug doesn’t mean that driver will be unimpaired, they said.

“If you feel different, you drive different,” Amos said. “You can’t get behind the wheel.”

The woman in Erie County whom Amos visited as a young trooper was the wife of a man killed when a driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.28% tried to pass a log truck on a blind curve, Amos said.

His vehicle struck the husband’s head-on.

The drunken driver and his equally drunken passenger survived with only bumps and scratches, Amos said.

That driver got 2.5 years in jail, he added.

Because of the woman’s initial reaction, the troopers went through their dispatch office to summon the family’s pastor, who arrived at the house within 15 minutes, Amos said.

The woman “disintegrated” into his arms, Amos said.

“You feel so helpless,” he said. “We were standing there like two big, gray vultures.”

The woman and her husband had three sons, two in college and one, a 12-year-old, sleeping upstairs, Amos said.

The troopers and the pastor talked the woman into letting the younger boy continue sleeping through the night, Amos said.

Enforcement of impaired driving laws is the most “tangible” way police officers can help society, because that kind of enforcement is so definitively preventive, Amos said.

When police investigate a homicide, the victim is already dead, he said.

When they investigate a burglary, the stolen possessions are already gone, he said.

But when they keep people from driving impaired, there are fewer deaths.

“You’re saving someone’s life” even though “you don’t know who,” Amos said.

The Altoona Police Department is staffed around the clock, including through the holidays, Plummer said.

The department has no DUI arrest quota, and officers would much prefer not to be called upon to make any DUI arrests, he said.

“(But) we’re going to be out there,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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