Crash course Numbers up in Jackson for alcohol-related crashes
Alcohol-related traffic accidents are on the rise in Jackson County, with rates outstripping those of both North Carolina as a whole and Western North Carolina in particular, according to Jackson’s 2014 State of the County Health Report.
The report, an interim update to the county’s community health assessment, compares health trends in the county to those in the state and region.
In Jackson County, 7.1 percent of traffic accidents were alcohol-related in 2011, while 7.5 percent were in 2012 according to the report. That’s compared to 5.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively, in North Carolina and 5.8 percent both years in Western North Carolina.
A slight jump, maybe, but the increase appears to be continuing past 2012, said Sgt. Matthew Wike of the N.C. State Highway Patrol. Wike’s data runs through November of 2014, so counting crashes from the first 11 months of each year since 2011, he sees an overall increase in the number of alcohol-related crashes.
Excluding December, for which he does not yet have comparable 2014 data, there were 22 alcohol-related crashes in Jackson County in 2011, 28 in 2012, a slight dip downward to 24 in 2013 and a surge up to 34 in 2014.
“In order to establish that as a trend, then I’m going to need more time to review the data, but there is a noticeable increase from 2011 to today, and it shows to me that alcohol-related crashes are on an uptick,” Wike said.
It’s not a pattern repeated in the other county Wike covers, Haywood. Though Haywood’s numbers jumped slightly to 39 in 2013, the 2014 level of 32 alcohol-related crashes is the same as it was in 2012.
One factor? Possibly the passage of countywide alcohol in Jackson County back in May 2012. Before then, alcohol could be sold only inside town or city limits. After the ban on county sales was lifted, many established businesses began selling alcoholic beverages, and some new ones sprang up as well.
“I think it’s certainly a contributor,” Wike said of countywide alcohol sales’ effect on crash numbers. “Is it the sole contributor? No.
“You can look at a lot of different things that can impact the amount of alcohol that’s being consumed, but being more widely available than it was prior to 2011 and additional business coming online to distribute alcohol, it makes the sale and purchase — and ultimately the consumption — of alcohol more readily available.”
Perhaps most notable was the surge in alcohol availability in Cullowhee. Not incorporated as a city or town, businesses there hadn’t been able to sell alcohol before the ban was lifted, despite the fact that a large contingent of potential consumers lives right there, in student apartments and on the campus of Western Carolina University.
After the ban was lifted, however, several existing restaurants — Sazon, Rolling Stone Burrito which has since closed and Mad Batter Food & Film, which has since moved to Sylva — began to sell alcohol. Beer and wine also appeared on the shelves of stores such as Bob’s Mini Mart and Catamount Travel Center.
And by the time classes began for the fall 2013 semester, a pair of brand new establishments had opened, capitalizing on the new alcohol rules. Tuck’s Tap & Grille and Cullowings both offer alcoholic drinks in addition to their food menus.
At the same time, WCU’s enrollment was on the rise. Between 2011 and 2013, the school added 521 resident students, increasing enrollment from 7,700 to 8,221. Counting online enrollment, 2014 enrollment is at 10,382, up a full thousand from 9,352 in 2011 according to the university’s website.
Wike points to growth in the university as another possible factor in the increase of alcohol-related crashes. Any kind of population growth would, by default, serve to boost any statistic, but college students are especially likely to contribute to this particular category.
“That is a high alcohol-consuming age group,” Wikes said, though cautioning that he isn’t able to break down the statistics to know the university’s impact for sure.
The county’s population also grew during the same time period, though more modestly. In 2010, 40,271 people lived in Jackson County, a number that grew to an estimated 40,919 by 2013, according to U.S. Census data.
Wike also postulated that an uptick in the economy could have spurred more people to partake at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, resulting in accidents in the county. In September 2011, unemployment was at 8.5 percent in Jackson County but has been steadily sinking, hitting 4.8 percent in September 2014 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We do occasionally see a lot of traffic-related instances that are directly related to the people that are traveling to and from the casino,” Wike said. “It has an impact on our traffic picture.”
Not all those people are Jackson County residents.
“When you look at the volume of people that are traveling to the casino, I’d say a large percentage of those are passing through Jackson County coming from Georgia or coming from South Carolina,” he said.
However, Wike noted, while alcohol-related traffic crashes are up, arrests for driving while impaired don’t seem to be trending in any one direction. Jackson County saw 81 in 2012, a spike to 98 in 2013 and 79 as of Dec. 23 this year.
“There’s all kinds of things that contribute to the crash picture and alcohol consumption picture,” Wike said.
Having these numbers in hand, however, provides the county — and its residents — a starting point.
“It’s really helpful for them and for us whenever we do program planning to see what areas need more focus and what areas we’re doing well in,” said Melissa McKnight, health education specialist for Jackson County.
The increase in alcohol-related crashes, McKnight said, might deserve to be an area of focus for the future.
“Maybe we need to form some coalition around that,” McKnight said. “It might be a good way to combat some of our issues in Jackson County.”
By the numbers
• 29 percent more alcohol-related crashes in 2012 in Jackson County than in Western North Carolina
• 34 alcohol-related crashes in the first 11 months of 2014 in Jackson County, up from 22 in the first 11 months of 2011.
• 32 alcohol-related crashes in Haywood County in both 2012 and 2014, with a dip to 29 in 2013.
Source: N.C. State Highway Patrol
For a lot of people, ringing in the New Year right requires more than just a sip of midnight champagne. But driving after imbibing is a dangerous proposition, so those who plan to partake should make a plan beforehand, said Sergeant Matthew Wike of the N.C. State Highway Patrol.
“The mature decision and the responsible decision is to choose not to drive, and don’t ever think that one or two drinks is acceptable,” Wike said.
For drivers over 21, the legal limit is 0.08 blood alcohol content but for commercial drivers, for whom the limit is 0.04. As to how many drinks it takes to reach that point — that depends on a variety of factors such as weight, gender, how much you’ve eaten, how quickly you’re drinking and what you’re drinking. It’s quite possible to feel like you’re safe to drive when, according to the law, you’re not.
“Your decision to drink and drive doesn’t just impact you individually, but it impacts the others on the highway and exposes your passengers to danger,” Wike said.
Rather than getting in a situation in which drinking and driving seems like the only option, Wike said, it’s best to either appoint a designated driver or arrange lodging at the same place you’ll be celebrating.
“Be conscious and aware in your decision-making when it comes to how you choose to celebrate the New Year,” Wike said. “If alcohol’s going to be a part of it, don’t couple that with highway travel.”