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Close encounter of the drunken kind


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We have all heard the phrase “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” But there is another experience that happens much too often and gives the expression “close counts” a much more personal meaning.

We have witnessed the tragedy that occurs when a drunken driver injures or kills an innocent party and affects the lives of multiple families. But “close counts” also applies when a drunken driver just misses taking the life of your spouse and yourself. It is amazing how three feet can be the distance between physical injury and emotional questions.

No time for a warning, no time to react, no time to avoid the stupidity; there is only time to think. Time to think about everything that has importance in your life. The potentially tragic event unfolds before you in slow motion, giving you the time to ponder and rethink about the stuff that is undone. Then it is past but not over. Your spouse looks at you and asks, “Are we all right?” The answer is not that easy; this is an experience that has not happened before, and it takes a moment to assess whether this is real.

Yet it is real and very close. Time returns to its hectic pace, reality sets in and people come to assist. A drunk has just hit your car. Luckily his vehicle was airborne when it hit yours, missing the passenger side and slicing through the hood with a downward force that stops the car without triggering the airbags, yet destroys everything in its path. You remember the bright light from the right, the noise and the vision of a tire passing in front of you and the lack of the passage of time. What has happened?

Another drunken driver has affected lives. In this case, injuries and death have been avoided. Yet the close encounter and the realization of what has just happened and what could have been the result (except for the grace of God) has an impact on the participants that is far-reaching. Why us? Why now?

The facts are staggering (no pun intended); the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) Web site notes that on average someone is killed by a drunken driver every 40 minutes, and almost 13,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2007. Even more astounding is that three of every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash sometime in their life.

The fatalities, injuries and damage that drunken drivers create are tragic, and the impact on the survivors after a fatal accident is forever. The effect of a “close encounter” on those involved is significant in a different sense.

We must continue to address the causes of drunken driving, the penalties and the minimum insurance levels required to protect the public. These actions will never replace the loss of loved ones, but we need to reduce the impact of drunken driving. We can only hope that there are fewer close encounters with drunken drivers.

Kevin Prust is a managing director of RSM McGladrey Inc. in Des Moines. The accident described here occurred on Sept. 27.

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