Drunk driving forever changed Brian Rushing’s life.
He was just 18 years old when he wrecked his SUV and killed his 21-year-old brother, Nathan.
That fateful night on Nov. 18, 2007, Rushing’s blood alcohol content was 0.09, over the legal limit.
After a night of partying, the last thing he remembers is seeing his brother at the family’s Land O’ Lakes home.
He doesn’t remember getting in his car or pulling out of his family’s driveway; nor does he remember swerving off the road on Parkway Boulevard in Land O’ Lakes.
“I was in a blackout,” Rushing recalled. “I shouldn’t have been drinking.”
Rushing was later charged with DUI manslaughter in the death of his brother.
He was sentenced to nine months in county jail and 10 years felony probation. His license was revoked for life. Said Rushing: “DUIs destroy lives.”
More costly to Rushing, however, is each day he must cope with the loss of his brother — a brother he adored and looked up to.
“I have to live with that decision for the rest of my life,” he said. “And the consequences.”
Rushing was a guest speaker at a DUI awareness seminar at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, in Wesley Chapel.
The Nov. 13 event was part of the state college’s ongoing Community Awareness Series, open to the public, students, faculty and staff.
Rushing, now 29, has turned his life around.
He’s been sober for more than 10 years, graduating from college and now working as a registered nurse.
He often shares his personal story to warn others about the dangers of driving under the influence, in hopes of preventing other families from experiencing a tragedy like his did.
“I never thought it could happen to me,” he said, “until it did, and it rocked my world. I thought it was something you’d read about in the newspapers in other towns.”
Stories like Rushing’s are all too common, the seminar revealed.
More than 11,000 people died and more than 290,000 were injured last year in drunk driving crashes, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
More than 1,100 of those fatalities occurred between Thanksgiving Eve and New Year’s Eve.
The problem hits locally, too.
The Tampa Alcohol Coalition (TAC) reports that Hillsborough County ranked No. 1 in Florida for DUI arrests (4,077) last year.
The county was also tops in Florida in 2015, which is the latest available data from the state, in alcohol-related crashes (1,469), alcohol-related injuries (993) and alcohol-related fatalities (66), the coalition reports.
“To be No.1, even though we’re the fourth-most populated county, is very alarming,” said Ellen Snelling, who chairs the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, which is part of the larger Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance.
Snelling, who has worked with the organizations since 2000, provided a closer look at the sobering statistics throughout the seminar.
Some suggest the area’s limited public transportation system is largely to blame for the county’s impaired driving figures.
Snelling, however, believes there’s more at play.
“We can try to work more on public transportation,” she said, “but I think the real reason is the mindset of people thinking, kind of like Brian said, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.”
Too many people want to party, and then think they can drive home and be fine, she said. “And, that’s a huge problem.”
Snelling also pointed to the high number of concentrated bars and clubs throughout the Tampa area.
She refers to them as “drinking malls,” where groups of people will hit several spots in one night, taking advantage of drink specials at each establishment.
“And, what if you haven’t made a plan? You’re going to get in the car and drive,” she warned.
Snelling went on to explain that closing gaps in some of Florida’s alcohol laws is critical to preventing impaired driving incidents, in particular, first-time offenses.
Florida is one of two states that has no law against bars serving obviously intoxicated persons; the other being Nevada.
Florida also has a weak dram shop law, which refers to civil liability for bars and clubs that serve an intoxicated person who later causes serious injury or fatality. (Under the law, individuals or businesses who sell alcohol will generally not be held liable for damages or injuries caused by a drunk person who they sold alcohol to.)
Snelling put it this way: “Now we don’t want bartenders and servers to lose their jobs, but we do want to send a strong message, because if you prevent a person from getting super intoxicated, there’s less of a chance they’re going to get in a car and drive and cause a terrible crash.”
She also observed: “We need to look at the circumstances, and if a bar is making tons of money by overserving and having like all these drink specials, then they should be held accountable, too.”
Drinking and driving isn’t the only problem, Snelling said.
“It’s not just about alcohol — it’s about drugs. It’s about marijuana. It’s about pills. It’s about opioids. …We’ve got to work on ways to reduce the use of alcohol and drugs before driving,” she said.
The Tampa Bay region leads the state with the most confirmed crashes caused by drugged drivers, with 465 since 2014, Snelling said. Also, deadly crashes caused by drivers high on drugs have increased 47 percent in the past three years.
Other speakers at the seminar included Jeannine Laurence, Mothers Against Drunk Driving program specialist; and, Dr. Eddie Williams, PHSC assistant professor of human services.
Published November 28, 2018