The deaths this week of a former public servant in Robeson County, his wife and son are a gruesome reminder of what can happen when people who are impaired by drugs or alcohol get in a vehicle and drive.
Innocent people can die or be maimed — and no matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to make sense of it.
Tommy Wellington was a great friend of Robeson Community College, having served as a trustee there for a quarter of a century. A longtime farmer and businessman in Robeson County, he was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Robeson County Board of Commissioners in 2005 and then won re-election before exiting the board in 2010.
We knew him as a soft-spoken man, quick with a kind word, who reached across lines that divide to try to make Robeson County a better place. To know him was to like him. Each year we could depend on him to show up with a generous gift and a smile for The Empty Stocking Fund, which has brought joy to so many children in this county who otherwise might have a bah-humbug kind of Christmas.
Wellington, 84, was with his 69-year-old wife, Joyce, his 55-year-old son, Jamie, and his sister-in-law when their vehicle was struck by a truck on Monday in Hoke County and erupted into flames. Jamie we are told became engaged to be married the day before his death.
It’s a miracle the sister-in-law survived the fiery crash.
As seems to be the case so often, the driver of the truck, who has been accused of driving while under the influence of drugs, walked away without any major injuries. That person’s life, however, will not be the same after the judicial system does it work.
A couple of days before that carnage, a pedestrian was struck and killed in this county by a motorist who was also charged with driving while impaired.
In North Carolina, it is illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol content of .08 percent or higher. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there were 371 traffic deaths — about 29 percent of the total — in North Carolina during 2014 that resulted from someone driving while impaired. We feel safe saying that is on the low side because if the impaired motorist is killed, it’s likely no further investigation will even be conducted to determine that person’s sobriety.
The human toll is considerable. While we hate to attach dollars to such thing, MADD says the expense to this state’s taxpayers for drunken driving fatalities was $1.8 billion last year.
In North Carolina, people who are caught driving while impaired face penalties that include fines, court costs and lawyer fees, loss or suspension of driving privileges, jail time, community service and higher insurances rates. Repeat offenders face all of that but in higher degrees.
The good news is that because of efforts from groups such as MADD, driving while impaired is no longer snickered at as it was in the 1970s, and there is stigma attached. That helps explain why the number of deaths attributed to drunken-driving accidents has dropped by half in the last 35 years.
But as this week’s horrific news reminds us, there is work to be done.
No one ever plans on driving drunk, but that’s what happens when people don’t plan. If your party includes too much alcohol, remember the alternative — a designated driver, a taxi cab or staying where you are at.
The price to pay is simply too high — and as we saw this week, too often it is the unsuspecting who pay that price and the devastation can be unimaginable.