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VI. Victims of Alcohol-Related Driving Crashes


According to 1998 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), odds are about 3 in 10 that at some point in life a person will be involved in an alcohol-related driving crash. More than 305,000 people were injured during 1998 in crashes in which law enforcement officers reported that alcohol was present. NHTSA estimates that in 1999 approximately 15,786 people died in alcohol-related driving crashes.

Drunk-driving victimization is generally severe and long lasting. Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that 5 years after victimization most victims remain psychologically, physically, and financially impaired. Twenty percent of victims feel they will never again experience a normal life.

The law enforcement officer with knowledge about the unique nature of injury and death in alcohol-related driving crashes will be forever remembered by victims—or survivors of victims—as a first responder who knew how to help. And don’t forget, it could just as easily have been you who was injured or killed by the drunk driver. Awareness of this fact will give you patience, humility, and courage.

Tips for Responding to Victims of Alcohol-Related Driving Crashes

  • Avoid words and phrases that discount the victim’s emotional and physical trauma. For example, do not use the words “At least” and “You’re lucky,” as in, “At least the drunk driver wasn’t speeding,” or “You’re lucky to be alive.” Such words will not comfort victims and may even hurt or anger them. Victims may be in shock or feeling fear, pain, panic, and confusion. Suggesting to victims that they are lucky or fortunate is not appropriate at this time.

  • Help the victim driver cope with feelings of guilt and failure. When a passenger has been injured or killed, the victim driver often feels guilty for not having avoided the crash with a last-second decision or maneuver. Gently encourage victim drivers to approach such feelings with rational thinking and to try to appreciate that the crash probably could not have been avoided. Explain to victim drivers that their last-second actions were only a small part of a complex sequence of events leading up to the crash.

  • Urge all victims to get immediate medical attention even when no signs of injury are present. Explain to victims that alcohol-related crashes are a leading cause of traumatic brain injury (also called closed head injury) in which the brain is injured without a skull fracture. Victims with such an injury may show no immediate symptoms and interact normally with first responders. Later, however, consequences of the brain injury may disrupt the victim’s life. As health problems develop, victims and medical professionals often do not connect them back to the alcohol-related crash. Without medical examinations at the time of the crash, these victims may never realize that their problems stem from the crash.

  • Expect ambivalent and conflicting feelings and statements from victim passengers in the drunk driver’s vehicle. It can be difficult for them to blame the drunk driver if he or she is a friend or family member. In addition, victim passengers may be reluctant to share information because they worry about possible criminal justice consequences for the offending driver.

  • Make sure your attitude and choice of words reflect the reality that drunk driving is a crime, usually a violent one, and that it has victimized many, many people. Your actions and words should reflect your knowledge that the consequences of drunk-driving victimization are as devastating as those of other violent crimes. Drunk driving is a crime, not an “accident.” Just as there is no such thing as a robbery accident or a rape or murder accident, there are no drunk-driving accidents.

  • Be prepared for victims to be emotional or even hostile. Sometimes, victims strongly believe that law enforcement does not treat the crime of drunk driving seriously enough, and they may express their views to you. Remain nonjudgmental and polite as you accept victims’ reactions and listen to them state their views. Do not argue or contradict what victims say. Listening attentively makes victims feel they have been heard. Show empathy for their pain and suffering, but do not say “I understand” when clearly no one can.

  • Support family members who want to view and spend time with the body of their loved one. Survivors often have a strong psychological need to get to the body of their loved one as soon as possible and spend time with it. Be sensitive to the family’s suffering. Knowing that death from an alcoholrelated crash almost always causes violent injury to the body, and knowing the pain such devastating images may cause surviving family members, your initial reaction may be to refuse the family access to the body out of a sense of compassion. However, refusal only increases the survivors’ pain. First, offer to view the body on behalf of the family and provide a detailed description to them. If family members still wish to see and be with the body, support their right to do so. Holding and touching a loved one’s body gives the survivors the chance to say goodbye while the victim’s body is still in its natural state, before funeral home preparation. Viewing the body can help survivors begin the process of accepting the death.

  • Choose your words with care and sensitivity. For many survivors, the distinction between “died” and “killed” takes on important significance after a drunk-driving crash fatality. The word “died” ignores the victimization. The word “killed” signifies the deliberate or reckless taking of life.

  • Look for and place in safekeeping any personal articles of the victims, such as clothing and jewelry, found at the crash scene. In a survey on satisfaction with the criminal justice system’s response to drunk-driving crashes, nearly two-thirds of the respondents were satisfied with law enforcement’s investigation of cases, but many felt that officers had failed to protect the victims’ personal property. This perception was a source of hurt and bitterness.

  • Review the Survivors of Homicide Victims section for additional tips on responding to the needs of survivors of victims killed in alcohol-related driving crashes.
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First Response to Victims of Crime 2001
December 2001
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