Cory Ravina and Keith “Punky” Aubol were walking home one night in 2001 after drinking in Superior when a drunken driver forever changed the course of their lives.
The crash left Ravina with a shattered knee, lifelong leg pain from two broken legs and in a wheelchair for six months. Aubol faced more challenging injuries: He was in a coma for nearly half a year, needed a full knee replacement and has a traumatic brain injury.
Before the crash, Aubol said he had a fiancee, lived on his own and ran two towing businesses. Now, he’s unable to hold a job.
The good news is preventable tragedies such as these are becoming far less common on Northland roads. In the decades since Ravina's and Aubol's lives changed forever, drunken driving deaths, injuries and arrests have declined substantially thanks to education and enforcement. Deaths caused by drunken drivers have decreased by 65 percent in Minnesota and 43 percent in Wisconsin in the past 20 years.
But progress is slowing, and every day on average 68 Minnesotans are arrested for driving while intoxicated, according to state figures. Then there are those who slip through the cracks.
A lingering acceptance of drunken driving, limited ignition interlocking system laws and a flux of drugged driving are contributing to a recent plateau, officials say.
And with the start of the “100 deadliest days” — the period of time between Memorial Day and Labor Day marked by an increase in deaths on the nation’s roads — drunken-driving prevention organizations are upping their initiatives.
“It's changing the story. ... And it takes a lot to get there. We haven't figured out what that is with DWI,” said David Bernstein, chair of Minnesota’s DWI Task Force. “But I think in terms of that public perception, we need to change the story.”
Education, enforcement leads to DWI decreases
At the turn of the century, more than 200 people would die every year in drunken driving-related crashes on Minnesota roads. In the past 10 years, that number has been cut nearly in half.
Something is working.
“Truly changing behavior on the large scale that we have seen has been a product of education and outreach,” said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety. “More and more people are making that good decision — and more and more people are speaking up.”
Hanson said the culture shift in recent decades has been dramatic. Thanks to mass media campaigns, tough law enforcement, early education and technology, few even consider drunken driving an option.
Yet for the 25,000 Minnesotans arrested for DWIs last year and the 121 who were killed in drunken-driving crashes, there is still progress to be made.
“We still have a huge impaired-driving problem in St. Louis County,” said Holly Kostrzewski, the regional coordinator for Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths. “A lot of that has to do with social norms and community norms.”
It’s just like seat belts, in a way. If your parents and friends didn’t wear seat belts, you probably won’t. If your parents and friends drink and drive, you probably will. As more people make the safer choice, it ripples out.
“Enforcement is not just law enforcement — it’s the enforcement of your family, your peer group, the people you surround yourself with,” Kostrzewski said. “It starts at home, it starts in our schools.”
Those social norms can be more difficult to shake in rural areas, where often the only way to or from a bar or a friend’s house is the vehicle that got you there — while in cities there are abundant taxis, buses and ride-sharing companies that make the choice much easier. Law enforcement then becomes a crucial last line of defense.
“Many times it's a fear of apprehension that will hopefully drive people to not drink and drive,” said Mark Peterson, executive state director of AAA in Minnesota. “And I think there’s been a great deal of success in that area. But ... those numbers are still too high when it comes to death.”
‘I’ve seen a significant drop’
There are three recurring reasons people give for why they drink and drive, when they get caught: “‘I thought I felt OK,’ or, ‘I didn’t want to leave my car, it’s a big hassle to go back the next day,’ or, ‘I only live a few blocks away, I’ll be fine,’” said Todd Simmons, the Duluth Police Department’s DWI investigator.
Simmons’ sole job is drunken-driving enforcement, something he’s been able to do less of since his federally funded position was created four years ago.
“The last couple of years I’ve seen a significant drop,” he said. “Unfortunately, people are still risking it to get their cars home.”
On a recent Thursday night, Simmons pulled over two drivers he suspected were intoxicated. Normally it’s the weeknights that get busy as “people let their guard down” and don’t bother to make plans around going out and drinking like they do on the weekends, Simmons said.
“It still kind of dumbfounds me to this day,” Simmons said. “There’s so much education out there, so much more awareness of this epidemic, but people are still doing it.”
Two decades ago, 42 percent of all Minnesota roadway deaths were related to alcohol. Now, less than a third are alcohol-related.
Prevention efforts have been increasingly targeted at young men, as they are far more likely to die in drunken-driving crashes than other groups of drivers, according to federal data.
Though it isn’t always because they were the ones behind the wheel.
Recent slowdown, shifting prevention tactics
Late one Wednesday night in 1980, 14-year-old Tricia Oliver woke up to the phone ringing in her room.
She answered, and the voice on the other end asked for her mom. She passed the call along.
Minutes later, Oliver woke up again — this time to her mom screaming.
Her mom had just learned that a drunken driver in the opposite lane of traffic swerved and smashed into a vehicle with her father, grandfather and two brothers inside. They had been driving from their home in Buffalo, Minnesota, to Cromwell to go deer hunting. Oliver’s father and grandfather died. Her two brothers, who were bed-ridden in a hospital for several months, survived with no lingering physical effects.
“The driver — I never forgave him. ... For my own self, I had to let it go. You know, I couldn't dwell on the fact that this man did this,” said Oliver, who lives in Duluth now. “(You) just go on with your life.”
Despite the decades-long decrease in deaths and crashes following the deaths in Oliver’s family, some say progress has stalled, causing many to reconsider prevention tactics.
“We’re not seeing the kind of downward trending we should see,” said Art Morrow, executive state director of Minnesota’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Drunken-driving deaths decreased by around 11 percent from 2013 to 2017, while they decreased by around 26 percent in the five-year span before that.
Minnesota doesn’t mandate the installation of an ignition interlocking system if an individual is caught drunken driving, except for repeat offenders and those with a high blood-alcohol content. Passing a law mandating its installation after every DWI would curb drunken driving, Morrow said.
These systems — which require drivers to prove to a Breathalyzer they are sober in order to start their car — have stopped more than 3 million drunken-driving incidents since 2006, according to data from MADD.
“We’re trying to get Minnesota to catch up,” Morrow said.
The group’s prevention efforts have also shifted to focus on drugged driving — operating a motor vehicle under the influence of prescription opioids, heroin and other drugs.
“Impaired is not just alcohol, it’s drugs,” said Kostrzewski with Toward Zero Deaths. “And there’s a lot of meth — an awful lot of meth.”
However, this is a challenging fight.
“The thing with alcohol is it’s easy to measure in the blood,” Morrow said. “The problem with drugs is … they’re all over the place.”
It’s easier to measure the level of alcohol in one’s system than measuring the level of drugs — especially on the side of the road, Morrow said. This hinders an officer’s ability to catch drivers under the influence of drugs.
Simmons was trained in drug recognition — identifying the signs of impairments — when he started in his role as Duluth’s DWI officer.
“I have seen an uptick in drugged driving over drunk driving,” he said. “In some places around the country, it is overtaking drunk driving.”
To deter this new wave of impaired driving, Bernstein, of the task force, said advocates will have to spread a message similar to that of drunken driving — one that tells people it’s OK to consume the drugs, if legal, but it’s not acceptable to drive afterward.
“As marijuana is being considered for legalization, if it does become legal, we want a big PR campaign to go out,” Bernstein said.
The drunken-driving crash that killed Oliver’s dad and grandpa happened 39 years ago. But she still thinks about it weekly and feels its impact.
“I just think about how much my dad lost out on. He never saw his kids grow up or his grandchildren,” Oliver said.
She said she understands how people make the mistake of getting behind the wheel while drunk, but that they should understand the potential for tragedy in their actions.
“Everybody’s probably done it,” Oliver said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but sometimes that mistake is catastrophic. And people just need to think before they get in the car.”