Drunk Driving: DUI deaths on the rise nationwide

Local family shares story in hopes no other family has to go through the same grief

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – DUI-related deaths are on the rise across the country.

The National Transportation Safety Administration says drunk driving deaths went up more than 14 percent between 2019 and 2020.

The numbers climbed five percent more last year. Florida is one of the top three states where people lose their lives from these crashes.

The Wheeler family is unfortunately part of those statistics.

They lost their son Jack in a DUI crash almost three years ago, and while they say the pain never really goes away, they hope their message keeps other families from going through the same grief.

Jack Wheeler meant the world to his parents, Cathleen and Winslow.

“He touched so many people,” Cathleen said. “He was so humble. He was so selfless. That’s the best way I can describe him. It was never about him.”

“Just so kind. Very intelligent. Intelligent to the point where he self-taught the piano,” said Winslow.

The 18-year-old Creekside High School senior was a passenger in a drunk driving crash when he was killed in 2019.

Born September 11, 2001, Jack was the youngest of the Wheeler’s three sons.

“He loved his big brothers a lot,” Cathleen said.

The Wheelers said Jack was really big on family.

“He was the baby,” said Cathleen “He was spoiled by not just us, but everyone around him. He had an infectious laugh. I think that’s what people remember most.”

The Wheelers said it’s a club no one wants to join.

“This can happen to you,” Cathleen said. “We never would have imagined that this would impact our family. That our family would be impacted by a drunk driver. But it happens and none of us are immune to it.”

That club continues to grow.

Judy Cotton with Mothers Against Drunk Driving works with families like the Wheelers through every step of the process.

“It doesn’t just end when the judge slams the gavel and gives someone a sentence,” Cotton said. “Someone may get a prison sentence and they’ll have a definite end of that, but unfortunately when someone loses someone to a DUI crash, that’s a life sentence.”

The Wheelers said the pain doesn’t get any easier, but they’re healing as best they can.

“We’re healing. We’re definitely in a place where I think we can look back and say we have more good days now than bad,” said Cathleen.

“Grief is everyday, but it’s different everyday,” said Winslow.

Now, they’re using their pain to educate others.

They go to schools warning teens about the dangers of drunk driving.

In honor of Jack’s birthday, the Wheelers are organizing the second annual Jack Hamilton Wheeler Golf Tournament.

Money raised will help St. Johns County high school seniors. Last year, more than $15,000 in scholarships were given to students.

“You never want that knock on your door. Or that phone call,” said Winslow.

They hope sharing their story saves lives.

The Wheelers want people to use ridesharing services and speak up if they encounter someone that may decide to drive drunk.

The Jack Hamilton Wheeler Golf Tournament is Saturday, September 24th, at the Golf Club at South Hampton.

The Nonprofit “Investing in Kids” is collecting donations as well.

If you would like to donate to the Jack Wheeler Scholarship, click here to contact Investing in Kids.

To participate in this event, please contact Willy DiStefano, Head Golf Professional at willy@dwagolf.com.

About the Author:

Amanda DeVoe joined the News4JAX team in March 2022 as a morning news and traffic anchor