Paula Zachary is well aware that Louisiana’s record-setting rate of highway fatalities far exceeds the drought figures.
Zachary’s son Brandon, 19, of La. Died in a car accident on Hwy. 1019 near Walker when he apparently passed out, ran off the road and collided with a utility pole in 2007.
Brandon Zachary’s blood alcohol content was .19, he said, more than double the legal limit for adult intoxication today.
She has since worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to help prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies.
Paula Zachary said, “I tell his story to try to encourage others not to do what they did.” ‘It turns my pain into an obsession.
Governor John Bel Edwards recently announced that there was a 17% increase in deaths on state highways in 2021 compared to 2020, the biggest such increase since records were set in the 1960s.
Alcohol contributed to 42% of last year’s 971 highway crashes, and has been for 16 consecutive years, according to state accident data.
Alcohol has played a role in 42% to 47% of road deaths since 2006, with two high-water marks in 2008 and 2014, according to data compiled by The Center for Analysis and Research in Transportation Safety at LSU.
“Alcohol in Louisiana is consistently reflected in our statistics in such a bad way, in such a prominent way,” said Lisa Freeman, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.
“And even though we’ve seen the introduction of other things into the mix alcohol, this lane continues to hold where we’re wrestling to get those numbers down,” Freeman said of the fatalities.
While alcohol is a major contributor, other issues also play a role in mortality.
According to statistics, failure to wear a safety belt or do so properly resulted in 150 deaths.
Drivers ran off the road 252 times, and distracted or inattentive driving contributed to 43 deaths.
The last time alcohol played a role in less than 40% of highway deaths — 32% — was in 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed routines in south Louisiana for the final four months of the year and beyond.
Alcohol was a contributor to 62% of highway fatalities in Jefferson Parish; 46% in East Baton Rouge Parish; 44% in Livingston Parish; 43% in St Tammany Parish and 42% in Ascension Parish.
Sean Wilson, secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation and Development, said the state’s lifestyle plays a big role in the number of deaths.
“I would say it has a lot to do with the culture of who we are,” Wilson said, noting that Mardi Gras, parades, tailgating during football season and family celebrations are regularly linked to alcohol consumption.
“Culture is everything we cherish, but alcohol use and casual acceptance of its use and then getting behind the steering wheel I think is the issue at hand,” he said.
Louisiana has run a drunk driving campaign around Labor Day weekend for years.
A similar action plan in the state is August 19-September. 5 with a focus on impaired drivers, seat belts and child safety violations, according to state police.
Jeanine Childers, outreach coordinator for the state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan, said she has no shortage of reasons to explain why alcohol is such a frequent part of highway deaths.
“I wish we had the magic answer,” Childers said.
“Alcohol is a drug. It is a drug and it is legal to consume it but you have to make the right choice whenever it is time to get behind the wheel.”
Freeman said it is not true that people in Louisiana drink more than the rest of the country.
“In Louisiana, our statistics show that we drink and drive at higher rates than some in the US,” she said.
Wilson said the combination of alcohol with cell phones and other distractions while driving is one reason why 56% of accidents occur among those aged 15-44.
“They are more inclined to have a more casual lifestyle,” he said.
Zachary, who lives in Albany, said before the accident her son stayed awake for 21 consecutive hours, had two part-time jobs and then spent time with friends.
He had just completed his first year at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Zachary, who has been talking to criminologists and students with MADD since 2008, recalled a time she was working at a Baton Rouge department store when she was approached by a young couple.
“He said ‘You don’t remember me but I was in your class and it made a huge impact on my life and I stopped drinking,'” she recalled. “I want to say we will see an end to bad driving but you don’t know.”