The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
The death of Healy resident Gitte Stryhn as she biked to work early Thursday morning wasn’t the first tragedy of its type, and it won’t be the last. But it should prompt residents of Alaska and the Interior to take action and begin a conversation in earnest that is long overdue: the toll that drinking, and driving while intoxicated in particular, takes on our communities.
Ms. Stryhn was riding her bicycle on Coal Street in the Parks Highway town about 120 miles south of Fairbanks. When she was hit by a vehicle, she was only about a block from her work as a tour bus driver for the Kantishna Roadhouse. Troopers investigating the incident quickly identified Dustin Dollarhide, 30 years old and a resident of Healy himself, as a suspect after damage to his truck and evidence on it strongly indicated he was involved. They arrested Dollarhide and charged him with manslaughter, driving under the influence, and failure to report an accident.
Believe it or not, it’s possible that at around 5 a.m., which troopers estimate as the time that Ms. Stryhn was hit and killed, Mr. Dollarhide could have just been returning home from the bar. Closing time for bars in the Denali Borough is 5 a.m., and while no time is a good time to drive drunk, a closing time so far into the morning means drunk drivers are more likely to intersect with commuters going to work for early shifts. The word from Healy is that Ms. Stryhn’s death has revived talk of moving bar closing times more in line with those in Fairbanks, at around 3:30 a.m. This is a topic well worthy of discussion.
Alaska’s problems with alcohol run deeper than bar closing times, though. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Fairbanks history to find a distressingly similar case — in 2005, drunken driver Eugene Bottcher hit and killed a 13-year-old Saul Stutz, who was riding a bicycle on Goldstream Road. Bottcher then left the scene and continued home. Crimes of violence that make their way through Alaska courts frequently involve alcohol, to the point that it’s a good deal more surprising to see one that doesn’t than ones that do.
Law enforcement officers, the judicial system, and the Legislature have taken measures that have helped reduce drunken driving. Stiffer penalties, ignition interlock devices, and alternative treatments like wellness courts led to a measurable decline in both the state’s rate of drunk driving and the number of fatalities caused by DUI between the 1990s and today. But that rate is nowhere near low enough that we can call it good enough.
Nearly all of us know people who have driven drunk and been caught doing so. Many have done so themselves — more than one in 10 Alaskans have been convicted of driving under the influence.
The reason alcohol abuse and DUI persist as widespread societal problems — beyond the physiological mechanism of addiction — is that they’re not issues that can be solved by outside forces. Enforcement and treatment have their place, but the lion’s share of the preventative work that can be done to eradicate drunken driving must be done on a personal level, by resolving ourselves and reinforcing among our friends and families that driving under the influence is intolerable behavior.
It’s often not an easy conversation to have, particularly with people for whom such behavior has become a habit, but the necessity of dealing with the problem should overwhelm our desire not to make waves among those we love. One need only look to Gitte Stryhn and Saul Stutz to see the reason why.