Tuesday, October 3, 2017

These crashes are not accidents

Karen Wittman
Anyone who knows me would say I am not a perfectionist, not a person who insists on exactness. But I do have one thing that I must insist on - stop calling impaired driving crashes “accidents.”
Hello, my name is Karen Wittman. I currently am Deputy District Attorney in the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office, and I specialize in traffic prosecution.  Prior to coming to Wyandotte County, I was the Kansas Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor for the state.
Read about any crash online or in print media and the headlines state: 
“Son dies in second drunk driving accident”
“Drunk driver kills couple in accident”
“One paralyzed in accident with drunk driver”
“Driver impaired in accident killing baby” 
This is wrong!  It is inaccurate! If you look up in Webster’s dictionary “accident,” it is defined as, “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally;” or better yet, “an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause.” 
An impaired driving crash is foreseeable, expected, intentional and NOT by chance.
I have made it a point to go out on all fatal crashes in which someone could possibly be charged with a crime. I work closely with law enforcement to determine if a crash involves criminal behavior. I remember one night specifically.  On that night, I received a call from my husband.  He was bringing our kids home from soccer practice.  He was wondering if I knew why the traffic was so backed up.  I told him I did not know.  As soon as I hung up, I received a call from dispatch. There was a crash and they were requesting me to come out.  I called my husband back and told him he may be there awhile. 
When I got there, it was obvious how the crash occurred. A vehicle had travelled the wrong way and hit a car head on. There was debris all over the roadway. I asked about the person who was driving the correct way. I was told he was still alive but that he probably would not make it. I asked about the other driver and was told she was not hurt but was being transported to the hospital to get checked out. The cops on the scene indicated they could smell alcohol coming from her and that there was an open container of alcohol in the vehicle. The driver who was driving the right way died three days later.
After further investigation and a blood test, the wrong way driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.24! The legal limit is 0.08. I charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter while Driving Under the Influence, a felony.
While working the case, I met the victim’s wife and 4-year-old son. They were devastated by what happened. I found out the victim was coming home from college where he attended night classes to make a better life for his family. His wife was about four months pregnant with their second child. The victim’s mother and father were in constant contact with me - they lived out of state. They wanted answers!  I did not have any. Why did this person do this? How did she get so disoriented to be going the wrong way on that stretch of highway? The only answer I could tell them is she was impaired.
In the end, the wrong way driver went to prison. She pleaded not to go. She wanted to be with her daughter who was young at the time. She begged the judge to allow her to be with her family. I told the judge my victim had no chance to beg for more time with his family. My victim wished he could have one more day, one more minute, one more moment with his family and that was all taken away from her selfish act.
Months passed and I received a card in the mail. It was a birth announcement-- a baby girl was born. A girl who would never know a father that wanted her life to be better than his. A father that would not walk her down the aisle, or give her advice or bring her home from soccer practice. Then it hit me … my family was on that road that night.
This crash and all other impaired driving cases are preventable! These crashes are foreseeable, they are not by chance … these crashes are NOT accidents. 




  1. That's a huge 10-4. Most people's driving habits are unforgivable. My son and I have contests to see who can drive the most perfect. It sounds silly but we take our attitudes about driving very seriously and find most times we have to drive defensively when there should be no need.

  2. AMEN, Karen! These are definitely not accidents! Although many media partners have begun using the term "crash" we have a long way to go in changing this particularly offensive terminology. To me, it's a slap in the face of the victim(s) to call a drunk driving offense an "accident" when the driver made an obvious choice to drive after drinking.
    Thanks for all you continue to do to prosecute these offenders.

  3. After our daughter was killed by a drunk drive we stopped using "accident" to describe the crash and encouraged the media to do the same. It worked for awhile but they went back to accident.

  4. You should have to stand out in the middle of the road doing your job as these people drive by you. I've stood on the centerline of many miles of roads as people drive by in their cars eating, drinking, texting, putting on makeup and all other sorts of things instead of just driving!!! Its amazing what you will see if you have to stand there long enough doing your job!!!

  5. Karen, you made me cry. Great article.

  6. Thank you Karen for sharing a sad story that you had to experience. Thanks also for your thoughts on what is an accident and what is a crash. I agree with your comments. It appears that educational efforts are still needed to inform the general public that when crashes happen, in most cases they are not accidents and they could be avoided if the driver or drivers were using safe driving practices. We hope all readers of our blogs will better understand this, share your story and become safer drivers.

    Larry Emig

  7. I'm typing through tears so forgive mistakes. Thank you for what you do and for your story and statement.
    No it was not an accident. It was a horrendous wreck. Caused by a man without a soul who murdered two innocent child-like men. May 6, 2016. The most heartbreaking day of my life. Approximately 3:45 in the afternoon. My little boy, aged 25 yet developmentally 3-5 years old was headed home from his Day Program at Starkey Inc. There were 2 other clients and 2 Staff with him in the van. The wreck got labeled "The Starkey Van Crash" and got a fair amount of coverage on the news. Google it. Wichita area. Its there.
    The crash occurred on a side street, at an intersection with a dirt road right in the city. The impaired driver and impaired passenger were taken to the hospital and released she,to home, him to jail. My son went to the hospital along with everyone he was with. One was released but was in horrible pain both mentally and physically. One was admitted with life threatening injuries. Another was admitted and was touch and go for awhile. Two remained in the Trama department. Awhile later we watched as one family was told their loved one had not survived. I was terrified that we would be next. And we were. But it wasn't until hours later. We all had to suffer through those hours as they tried one lifesaving measure after another until the Dr. said "his heart has stopped".
    NO! It was not an accident. It was a WRECK, caused by a Drunk and Drugged Driver! I refuse to refer to it any other way. I also refuse to say my son "died"! My precious' child like and child sized son was KILLED. MURDERED by a drunk, drugged criminal on probation. I don't use the word murder lightly. Its the truth. My sons killer was tried, found guilty and sentenced on 14 counts. 2 of which were 2nd degree reckless murder.
    My sons headstone will not say born and died. It says Born and killed. It also pleads for people to please don't drive impaired.

  8. I was inspired by this article and would like to refer to it in the State's municipal court association newsletter (KACM). Can you email me so that I can email a draft?

    Greg Nickel
    KACM President