SOUTHERN INDIANA — The image of a cobalt colored MINI Cooper crinkled under shattered glass with a chunk of steel missing from the passenger side might be the one thing to stop someone from drinking and driving, or at least Kevin Vissing hopes it is.
Vissing's 18-year-old son Kyle was the passenger in that car when it veered off the road and crashed into a tree in what was then called Sylvan Park in Jeffersonville on the night of March 19, 2006. The driver, then 21-year-old Matthew Chinn, was later found to have a blood alcohol level of .237 percent, almost three times the legal limit of .08 in Indiana.
Ten years later, Vissing said he remembers every detail leading up to his son's death, right down to the Indiana University vs. Gonzaga basketball game he was watching at a friend's house in New Albany when he got the phone call. And he remembers when the doctors at University of Louisville Hospital told his family to say their goodbyes to Kyle.
"We have to hope that we can forget some because if you lived every day with that on your mind, you couldn't function," Vissing said. "So that's what I've told a lot of people who have lost their children since I lost mine. I say time is great healer."
Sylvan Park was later named Vissing Park in Kyle's memory. But Vissing, a Clark County councilman, said he isn't sure if anyone learned a lesson from his son's death, noting that even people close to the family have been charged with drunken driving since Kyle's death. Local law enforcement and prosecutors say the rates of OWIs — also called DUIs — have fluctuated from year to year, but that tougher enforcement and punishment may help curb the problem and prevent more fatalities.
In 2014, there were 94 fatal, alcohol-impaired crashes in Indiana, a 7.8 percent decrease since 2010, according to data from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. There were another 4,480 non-fatal collisions involving an alcohol-impaired driver in 2014, compared to 4,875 in 2010. In Clark and Floyd counties combined, 28 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Not all OWIs end in crashes. Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin said it's frustrating that troopers continue to see drunken drivers on the road. Just how often they make an arrest depends on how many troopers are on the road.
"So in years where we've had availability of more troopers to be on the road obviously we have more DUIs, and the years that for some reason we don't have the number of troopers on the road that we'd like, our numbers are lower," Goodin said. "So that just goes to show that the DUIs are continuing. There's not been a slow down or a stop down.
Goodin said troopers probably arrest more young people, but that offenders comes in all ages. Of the 101 alcohol-impaired collisions in Clark County in 2014, 44 of them involved drivers between 25 and 44 years old, the most of any age group, according to ICJI data. In Floyd County, there were 38 out of 87 alcohol-impaired collisions with drivers in the same age group for the same year, also the most of any other age group. In both counties, the second ranking age group was 45 to 64.
"It's something that we continue to battle every single night," Goodin said.
Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said OWI cases are "very, very common." He often sees repeat offenders, but said many people learn not to do it again after a first offense. For those first time offenders charged with a misdemeanor OWI, Mull said a sentence can include up to one year of incarceration or probation. On top of that, court costs and attorney fees can pile up to thousands of dollars.
In some cases, depending on the person's criminal history and level of blood alcohol content at the time of the arrest, Mull said his office will agree to reduce the OWI charge to reckless driving. But for repeat offenders or in cases where there's been serious injury or death, Mull said the consequences are tougher.
"It's one of those crimes where people can legitimately think I'm not intoxicated or I'm not over .08, and get in the car and it really takes them by surprise when they get pulled over and they're illegal," Mull said. "But there is a minority of drunk driving offenders who just continue to do it, and I've asked my deputies for those people to seek felony convictions and jail time."
Mull said OWIs are one of those crimes that "everyone wants you to be tough on unless it's them or one of their relatives." Since taking office in January 2015, Mull said he made it a point to get tough on OWIs. Since then, he said, the conviction rate has "increased dramatically" as deputy prosecutors are asked to seek out harsher sentences. Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson said he's also made an effort to convict OWI offenders, particularly the repeat offenders.
"Over the years we've dealt with those drivers and we've, I think, cut down to a great extent on the repeat offenders," Henderson said.
Following Kyle Vissing's death in 2006, Chinn, now 31 years old, pleaded guilty to a Class B felony count of OWI causing death and a Class C felony of reckless homicide. He was sentenced to six years in the Indiana Department of Correction, but served only three for good behavior. Chinn said it's not for him to say whether three years was enough time served for causing his best friend's death, but he's serving a sentence of a different kind.
"Immediately after it happened I kept believing that I was in some sort of nightmare and some sort of bad dream that I could wake up out of, and unfortunately that wasn't the case," Chinn said about the days following the crash. Even more than a decade later, he said he thinks about what happened every day.
With a felony conviction, Chinn said he also struggles to find a job, at one point going through more than 30 interviews. He's now employed as an IT specialist but said he worries about advancing his career, despite having two college degrees. Whatever the consequences, Chinn said what he's experienced is nothing compared to what the Vissing family loss.
SENDING A MESSAGE
While Henderson said OWIs continue to be a problem, he thinks law enforcement efforts and convictions have helped curb how often they happen. If there's any one growing problem, he said, it's drugged driving. He said he's seen more cases where drivers get behind the wheel under the influence of marijuana or prescription pills.
Henderson said tougher laws and lower legal limits could make an impact on OWI rates, but that it wouldn't stamp out the problem entirely. Standards and laws have gradually changed, he said, including the legal blood-alcohol limit dropping from .15 to .08 over decades. Exactly how far the law goes in enforcing and convicting OWI offenders will depend on what society wants to tolerate, Henderson said.
"So I think we've had some of that, as it's become tougher, we've had less drunk driving. There's more awareness of the consequences of the dangers," Henderson said.
Goodin said initiatives like quarterly sobriety checkpoints and extra patrols help get OWI offenders off the road. Other efforts, like advertisement campaigns and education in the classroom, help get the word out about the consequences. Still, Goodin said there's something standing in the way of the message getting through.
"The thing about it is there's a lot of stuff in the United States of America that revolves around alcohol. I mean, if you think about it, all the alcohol advertisements that you see during sporting events. ... Even when [people] launch a boat they bust a bottle of champagne or whatever on it," Goodin said. "A lot of society and a lot of the things we do in society actually revolve around alcohol. Unfortunately some people do not know when to quit."
Goodin added that people who think they can set personal drinking and driving limits outside of the legal limits are "absolutely wrong." The first drink someone takes, he said, impairs judgement.
Chinn said part of him knew that driving the MINI Cooper that night in 2006 was wrong, but he didn't understand how serious the consequences could be. He said now more than ever there's no excuse for someone to drink and drive when there are taxi services like Uber and Lyft at everyone's fingertips.
Vissing said it was important that Chinn faced consequences for his actions, but he decided long ago to forgive him. That forgiveness has made more room for Vissing to remember his son. He remembers Kyle as a jokester, much like he is. He remembers how he played the drums, guitar and keyboards and imagines he'd be playing in a band if he were alive today. He remembers wondering why he once came home to find a table broken to pieces, only to later find out Kyle and his friends had used it for a stunt in a short film they made.
"He will always be 18," he said. "But I'll always wonder what he would have became. As a parent, you always wonder about that."