When 476 Tyler Legacy High School seniors celebrated their accomplishments last week, one classmate couldn’t walk across the stage for her diploma or share the excitement about starting a new chapter in their lives.
Senior Lilly Thornburgh’s future ended in January when she died in a car crash involving a man accused of driving drunk.
A Smith County grand jury indicted Jason Charles of Tyler for intoxication manslaughter in her death. In Texas, a driver is considered legally intoxicated when their blood alcohol concentration reaches 0.08%. The night of the crash, Charles reportedly consumed six cocktails at the Rose City Draft House.
In April, officials charged Justin Pierce of Tyler with intoxicated manslaughter after he allegedly struck and killed 18-year-old Marissa July-McCuin as she attempted to cross State Highway 64 west of Tyler.
The two deaths already this year match the total of fatal drunken driving crashes recorded within Tyler city limits in 2021, according to police records.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30% of all crash fatalities recorded in the United States involve drunken driving. In Texas — which has the fourth highest drunken driving rate in the country according to the Texas Department of Public Safety — 1,029 Texans died last year as a result of an alcohol-related traffic crash. That number means one person died every eight hours and 31 minutes in Texas due to driving while intoxicated.
Data received from the Tyler Police Department in response to an open records request reveals a total of 343 DWIs in Tyler in 2021, an average of 28 incidents per month. The highest number of incidents happened in March with a total of 37 incidents. Forty-five percent of these incidents occurred between the hours of 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Many of these DWIs were accompanied with additional higher charges:
- Driving under the influence by minor – 13 incidents
- DUI with a child passenger – 5 incidents
- Possession controlled substance – 19 incidents
- Other possession controlled substance charges – 13 incidents
- Possession and delivery of drug paraphernalia – 9 incidents
- Possession of marijuana – 16 incidents
- Assault/intoxication assault (including one assault of a public servant) – 9 incidents
- Unlawful carry of weapon (including one unlawful possession of a firearm) – 12 incidents
Public Information Officer Andy Erbaugh said DWIs typically happen in more heavily-trafficked areas. In Tyler, those include Troup Highway, Old Jacksonville Highway, Broadway and the South Loop.
“That’s not to say that it can’t happen anywhere,” Erbaugh said.
Patrol officers use data provided by crime analysts to know where DWIs occur most frequently.
“If I’m a patrol officer and I know that I work this evening shift that goes into one or two in the morning, I’m gonna focus on where the data says that most of these drunk drivers are to go stop those intoxicated or impaired drivers,” he said.
Typically, a DWI is an isolated event for many people who get charged with one.
“I did 10 years on patrol. For the most part, everyone that I pulled over was a first time offender,” Erbaugh said.
The penalties set in place for DWIs are a good deterrent from repeating the offense, he said.
The penalties for a first offense include a fine up to $2,000, up to 180 days in jail upon conviction and loss of driver’s license up to one year. These fines don’t include the state fine that can be assessed upon sentencing, which could be anywhere from $3,000-$6,000.
“The penalties for DWIs in Texas are pretty severe … enough to the point where you might think about it before you do it again,” Erbaugh said. “That’s the goal of all of it, of enforcing the law, to make sure you learn the lesson and don’t do it again.”
On holidays, like Memorial Day weekend, the Tyler PD uses the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant to help keep drunken drivers off of the streets. This grant allows the police department to put more officers on the streets specifically just to focus on those data driven areas where DWIs occur. These officers do not answer or respond to other calls.
“They are strictly there to enforce DWI laws and to stop intoxicated drivers,” Erbaugh said.
Erbaugh said the first thing he would tell someone who is about to get behind the wheel of a car is to remember there are always consequences for one’s actions.
“Just because you think you can drive doesn’t mean you can. You should always have a designated driver that has had nothing to drink,” he said.
In Tyler, Uber, Lyft and taxis are always an option for people who need a ride home, Erbaugh said.
“Call somebody. It’s so easy now to get on your Lyft or Uber app and have a ride there in less than ten minutes. If you’ve had anything to drink, don’t drive,” he said.
“Realize that not only are there legal consequences but you could harm somebody else, and oftentimes, that’s what happens,” Erbaugh said.
That’s one of the messages the nationally known organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving focus on. The organization, founded in 1980, provides support to victims and advocates for stronger DWI laws in chapters around the country.
A law known as Bentley’s Law passed in Missouri requires an offender who kills a parent in a drunken driving crash to pay child support. The law is catching the attention of lawmakers in other states, including Texas.
“Too often, offenders are able to move on with their lives even after killing someone, while victims and survivors are reminded every day of their loss,” said Alex Otte, national MADD president. “The idea behind Bentley’s Law is to both provide a sense of justice to victims and survivors and make sure offenders are reminded of the heartbreak they caused by making the choice to drive impared.”
Editor’s note: Repeated attempts to contact MADD’s Tyler chapter were unsuccessful. A contact on that chapter’s website refers inquiries to the state MADD office. The Tyler Loop sent three separate requests to the state office and only received one response. A representative in the state office indicated someone would contact the reporter, but did not.
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