John Whetsel

  • Sheriff (ret), Oklahoma County OK
  • Chair, Traffic Safety Committee, National Sheriffs Association
  • Chief (ret), Choctaw OK Police Department
  • Past President, International Assn of Chiefs of Police

SAY THEIR NAME

There has been so many efforts to curb impaired driving over the years – changing laws, public education, increased detection – and yet, there are still so many victims – 10,511 in 2018. Every 50 minutes another person dies as a result of an impaired driver. We must remember that every one of those victims has a name and it’s up to us to Say Their Name.

Donna Potvin was a 48-year old mother of 6 who died when her vehicle was hit head-on by an impaired driver in Midwest City, OK, in 2018. Her killer received 52 weekends in the county jail and 35-years probation. Her husband was outraged. “How is that fair to my wife? How is that fair to my six kids.” I am sure the sentence would have been different, harsher, if the killer had used a gun or knife instead of a car.

Our society has decided it’s acceptable to die in a motor vehicle crash. Today and every day over 100 people die in traffic crashes – including 29 who will die at the hands of an impaired driver – and there is no news coverage, no public outrage, and no urgency by elected officials. There will just be immense sadness and loss by those who will bury and grieve for their loved ones.

On February 3, 2020, the intoxicated driver of a pick-up truck, going 79-mph in a 25-mph zone, crossed two lanes, struck a parked vehicle and veered onto a sidewalk, where, with over 150 high school students watching, he plowed into members of the Moore OK High School cross country track team running less than a block from the school. 17-year-old senior Rachel Freeman died at the scene, 16-year old sophomore Yuidia Martinez died the following day, and 18-year-old senior Kolby Crum died 12 days later. Ashton Baza, Shiloh Hutchinson and Joseph White were injured. The driver, a multiple-time repeat DUI offender, fled the scene and was arrested a few minutes later after additional crashes. He is charged with 13 felony counts, including 3 counts of manslaughter.

It shouldn’t matter what the weapon is – but it does. This killer would have faced murder charges if he had used a gun or knife to kill these students, but, because he used a motor vehicle, the charges were manslaughter that carry a lesser sentence.

Why is it okay to die in a motor vehicle crash and why do we value the life of those killed with a gun or knife more than one killed by a motor vehicle? It’s not fair and it’s not right!

Too many people think that because a vehicle was used “it’s just an accident” – but it’s not. No one has ever died by accident in a crash. Using the word “accident” minimizes the deaths and injuries that occur in motor vehicle crashes. It’s offensive to victims and survivors.

Recently I heard a public official say that their investigation would determine the cause of the “accident”. An accident is “an unfortunate event that happens by chance or without apparent cause”, but every crash has a cause – speed, running a stop sign, reckless or impaired driving – it may be unplanned, but it’s never accidental.

It’s time to change attitudes about “accidents”. It’s also time to change attitudes about traffic crash deaths being acceptable, and it’s time to change laws that treat traffic crash victims differently than other victims of violent crime. With your help, we need to begin that change now.

We begin by never forgetting the victims – by saying their names. Today I said the names of Donna, Rachel, Yuidia, Colby, Ashton, Shiloh and Joseph.

We also need to work with legislatures to change laws to ensure that all victims of violent crime are treated equally.

We must stop using the word “accident” and work with elected officials to replace the word “accident” with the word “crash” in city ordinances and state laws.

We must continue to aggressively enforce traffic laws, remove impaired drivers from the roadways and demand that courts apply the law to provide justice for all victims.

Let me close by saying three additional names – Darlene, my first wife, and Becky, our 2-year old daughter. They died when their car was struck by a law enforcement officer in pursuit of a possible impaired driver. Our 4-year-old daughter Stacy was critically injured and miraculously survived. I was one of the officers who arrived to assist at the scene.

For me, this is personal. I ask you to join me and together, let’s … SAY THEIR NAME.