Meet trooper patrolling roads for drunk drivers

News4Jax went on patrol with FHP Trooper Addison Wheeler ahead of New Year’s Eve

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Driving drunk? Expect to get pulled over, arrested and hauled off to jail. That’s the message Florida Highway Patrol is reminding drivers as New Year’s Eve approaches.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4,100 people died in drunk driving crashes during the month of December from 2013 to 2017. That’s why troopers say they will be cracking down on drivers who have had too much to drink during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

On Monday, News4Jax spent part of the night out on the road with one trooper, who says this is the time when drunk driving is very prevalent, and she is not playing around when it comes to keeping drunk drivers off the road.

Her name is Trooper Addison Wheeler, a veteran member of Highway Patrol who has spent the last three years taking suspected drunk drivers off the highway. She and the rest of her fellow troopers will be out in full force on New Year’s Eve.

While enjoying a night out celebrating the start of a new year, it’s important to remember to drink responsibly and not get behind the wheel while intoxicated because Wheeler says impaired driving can injure or kill you, your passenger, other motorists and pedestrians.

“If you don’t think about all those things, you have to answer to us," Wheeler said.

FHP DUI enforcement
FHP DUI enforcement (WJXT)

In 2018, according to the Department of Transportation, more than 10,000 people across the United States were killed in crashes involving drunk driving. Nationally, over the last five years, an average of 300 people died in drunk driving crashes the week between Christmas and New Year, the Department of Transportation says.

Wheeler says sometimes people are not aware they are too drunk to drive until it’s too late.

“You could have one drink or one Tylenol PM wrong. It’s not necessarily how much you had to drink, what you have taken or the substance. It’s are you impaired beyond your normal faculties to operate a vehicle safely?” Wheeler said.

If you are drinking on New Year’s Eve, Wheeler offers some advice.

“Designate a driver. Use a shared ride service like Uber or Lyft to get you to your destination safely,” she said.

While Wheeler talked with News4Jax about keeping the roads safe from drunk drivers this holiday, she also talked about the reality of DUI fatalities. It’s a subject she takes personally.

“We all take it seriously," Wheeler said. "And if you are out driving around as a citizen, motorist or designated driver and you see aggressive driving or unnormal behavior of a vehicle, please dial 911.”

Wheeler says reporting suspected drunk driving can save lives. For the last three years, she’s had times when she’s had to notify next of kin following a fatal DUI crash. She says she was saddened every time she had to do that.

“It’s that doorstep," she said. "The walk up to the doorstep where I have to let the family know their relative was involved in a crash with a driver that was impaired.

She says those conversations never get easy, especially during the holidays.

“It’s one of the worst parts of this job and they are going to remember us walking up to their doorstep with our campaign hat on that holiday season," Wheeler said.

Another sobering reality during the holidays, Wheeler says, is arresting parents in front of their children when the parent chooses to drive drunk with their child in the car.

“Sometimes I think people say, ‘I’ve driven like that before and the kids are with us at the party and I’ll have a few drinks,’" Wheeler said. "Well, when you rear-end a car and have been under the influence of alcohol and the officer sees signs of impairment, we’re going to act on it. “

FHP says these scenarios can be avoided by simply choosing to not drive drunk.

FHP DUI enforcement
FHP DUI enforcement (WJXT)

Options to help you avoid driving drunk

As part of a nationwide effort to curb drinking and driving, News4Jax is taking part, along with thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country, in Project Roadblock. Part of the effort, which runs from Dec. 26 to New Year’s Eve, includes reminding drivers about free Tow to Go services available.

In Florida and Georgia, AAA offers free Tow to Go through 6 a.m. on Jan. 2, and AAA membership is not required to take advantage. Just dial 855-2-TOW-2-GO, and AAA will take you and your car to a safe location within 10 miles.

In addition, Jacksonville law firm Farah & Farah is sponsoring its annual “Keep Our City Safe” program, providing a free ride home in the form of an Uber or cab, between 3 p.m. on Dec.31and 3 a.m. on Jan. 1. If you would like to use the free ride program in Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve or Day, click here for the details.

Drivers can also call a rideshare or taxi company or establish a designated driver before heading out for festivities. Remember, a designated driver is one who has been sober all night, not the person in your group who is the “least drunk” or had the fewest drinks. For good tips on selecting a responsible designated driver, click here.

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