Rally sheds light on risks of impaired driving

For one drunk driver, it took going blind to finally see.

That’s the message Derrick Jenkins shared during A Rally to Prevent Impaired Driving, on Dec. 5 at John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel.

Three years ago, Jenkins was just a “normal kid.”

But, the St. Petersburg resident’s life changed forever on Nov. 5, 2013.

Derrick Jenkins was the guest speaker during A Rally to Prevent Impaired Driving on Dec. 5. Jenkins lost his eyesight three years ago after an impaired driving accident.
(Kevin Weiss/Staff Photo)

Jenkins, then 21, attended a local car show with a few buddies. His intention was to get drunk. He did.

“Being 21, I was thinking, ‘Sweet, we can get trashed legally.’ That was my mindset at the time,” Jenkins said, addressing a group of parents and their children.

That November evening, an intoxicated Jenkins chose to ride his motorcycle home. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

He did not make it far.

He trekked about a “a block down the road” before he and his motorcycle collided full-force into a stationary construction truck on U.S. 19.

The fallout was catastrophic.

“I hit the truck so hard my eyes literally popped out of my head,” Jenkins said, “My eyes were literally hanging on my cheeks.”

Jenkins, now completely blind with no eyes, had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury from the crash.

As a result, he now suffers from diabetes insipidus. It is a rare disorder that causes an imbalance of water in the body and is marked by intense thirst and heavy urination.

He is also unable to regulate his body temperature, and is stricken with short-term memory loss because of dead spots scattered across his brain.

“They all affect me on a daily, hourly basis,” he said of his existing medical problems.

The incident was a long time coming, Jenkins said, considering his proclivity to excessively drink at house parties since he was in high school.

“I’m surprised it didn’t happen to me sooner,” he said, candidly. “I let what other kids think of me affect my decisions.”

For Jenkins, the dangers of driving impaired serve as a constant reminder.

“It only takes once,” he said.

December is National Impaired Driving Awareness Month.

To spread the message, several organizations — the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), and Safe Teens AgaiNst Drugs (STAND) — teamed up for a panel discussion on issues related to drug and alcohol abuse, especially involving youths.

Much of the 30-minute dialogue centered on causes and impacts of underage drinking and drug abuse.

Shawn Crane, a Pasco Circuit Court Judge, said curbing youth substance abuse starts with choosing the right friends.

“The people you surround yourself with are absolutely critical to remaining drug free and alcohol free,” Crane said, during the roundtable. “If you want to fit in with that group that goes to the house parties, that is going to be the root that brings you down.”

Alexis Escalante, a MADD program specialist, said children with self-esteem issues are more at-risk of being pressured into drug and alcohol use.

“Kids can fall into that trap when they have low self-esteem,” Escalante said, “and they are looking for acceptance…wherever they can.”

That’s why, Escalante said, parents need to talk to their children about substance abuse at an early age.

“We have found that kids start forming their own opinions about drugs and alcohol as early as 8 years old,” Escalante said, “so it’s up to the parent to determine whether or not they’re getting correct information.”

She added, “The earlier you start talking about it, the more manageable it’s going to be.”

Ariana Santillana, a freshman at Ridgewood High, agreed, noting youth are heavily influenced not only by their peers, but what’s presented in movies, music and television.

“Drug use and alcohol is being promoted everywhere,” Santillana said. “Youth are like sponges—they soak up all the information they get about drugs.

She added: “It seems like parents are scared to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs, and the effects it can have on them.”

Those effects are multiple and long-term, panelists concurred.

Besides the risk of motor vehicle accidents, there’s a possibility of stunted brain function, said Christina Roberto, a master social worker at BayCare Behavioral Health.

“When you’re underage, your brain is still developing,” Roberto said. “It doesn’t stop until you’re 25 or 26 (years old), so when you add all these extra substances…it’s causing it to not fully develop.”

Incarceration is another possible outcome, even for those under 18.

Natalie Scruggs, an assistant state’s attorney for Florida’s Sixth Judicial Court, said juveniles can be charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) manslaughter, a second-degree felony equating to 15 years in prison.

“That stays on your record pretty much forever,” Scruggs said. “The consequences can be very, very horrible.”

Panelists also agreed that substance abuse—and impaired driving — could create significant financial hurdles, from legal fees and court costs, to exorbitant medical bills to skyrocketing insurance rates.

“The cost is really difficult to measure,” Crane said, “because it is so vast.”

Published December 14, 2016

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