Drunk drivers are on a roll in Charlotte. We've gone from simple DWIs and car crashes to the latest trend of intoxicated folks barreling down the wrong side of the highway.
Our wise leaders, naturally, are full of suggestions for solving the problem. If you're Sue Myrick, the answer is to deport illegal aliens. If you're the mayor, you put more lights on the highway. If you're the governor, you double-check road signs' reflectivity. I'm here to tell you that barring the establishment of a police state, there's not much that can be done. Here's why: most of the people who are driving drunk and/or headed the wrong way are young men, and like most young men, they feel immortal. And, being young drunk men, they're convinced they can drive home safely just this once.
This isn't what anyone wants to hear, but some problems just aren't very solvable, and young guys driving drunk is probably one of them. I know because I've been there.
When I was 27 and living in a dumpy duplex in Dilworth where a hospital parking deck now sits, I drove out to the UNCC area one Saturday, off Hwy. 49, for a party hosted by a co-worker. Most of the people at the party were co-workers, too, and I had a pretty good time talking and drinking, and laughing and drinking, and, if memory serves, dancing and drinking. And, of course, drinking and drinking -- much more than I usually drank, for some reason I've never figured out.
About 10pm, I found I was too drunk to have a decent conversation with anyone anymore and, employing that unique brand of Drunk Logic that only kicks in when you're three sheets to the wind, I decided it would be best to drive home. I had driven home from parties a bit wobbly a few times before and, truth be told, I had even negotiated the nighttime highways once or twice in a state I'd call semi-roaring drunk. So I was only a little anxious when I got behind the wheel. This shouldn't be a problem, said the Immortal One in my head (he'd been in there since the teen years and hadn't wised up yet).
How drunk was I? There are many ways to describe inebriation, but I'd say that particular evening I wasn't knee-walking drunk, and definitely not commode-hugging drunk, but I was shit-faced. I had parked at the curb, facing my friend's rural-style mailbox, which was fixed to a wooden pole. Someone else had parked very close behind me and I had a hard time making the maneuvers needed to squeeze out of my space. So I did the only logical thing: I ran over the mailbox -- flattened it -- all the while thinking, "I'll have to call him tomorrow and buy him a new one of those." Drunk Logic is so reasonable, isn't it?
I don't recall driving out of my friend's neighborhood, but I do remember turning left onto Hwy. 49, back toward town. About a minute later, I noticed a pair of lights in front of me. Then it registered that they seemed to be getting a little larger by the second. Hmmm, pondered my Drunk Logic, what is that? Then an inner emergency switch clicked on: HOLY SHIT! I'm on the wrong side of the highway! Do something! I swerved to the right, over the wide, bumpy grass median and back onto the correct side of Hwy. 49, thinking the whole time, "Please God, don't let there be a cop around here." Apparently, there wasn't.
I found myself temporarily scared straight -- adrenaline will do that to you -- so I focused as hard as I could for the rest of the drive and somehow made it home in one piece. When I woke up the next morning, I vowed to never drink and drive again, and I've stuck to it.
My point is an obvious one that is nonetheless always overlooked during a spate of drunk driver stories: when you're drunk, your judgment is as wrecked as you are. Stern lectures, horror stories, never mind the law, all disappear. Legible signs? More lights? They wouldn't have made any difference to me that night, and I doubt they'd have been of much use to the five wrong-way drivers we've read about recently.
Let me clarify: I think driving drunk is a criminally stupid thing to do and if I had been caught that night, I would have deserved whatever punishment the law was handing out in those days. But don't pretend some new policy will stop it, because public uproars about drunk driving pop up, and go away, and pop up again and again, like so many alcoholic prairie dogs. It's easy for politicians to say they're going to clamp down. What else can they say -- "there's not much I can do"? The hard truth, though, is that they can raise the legal drinking age to 30, deny a drivers' license to anyone whose genes predict even a hint of alcoholism, they can even post snipers on highway overpasses and order them to shoot at weaving cars. But if a young guy is drunk, has access to a car, and doesn't have a designated driver, none of that will matter. Some problems just won't go away.