Photo contributed by John Kirwan
The fight against drunk driving has new meaning to Hermiston city councilor John Kirwan after his mother was killed by an impaired driver just over a week ago.
The call came shortly before 6 p.m. on Nov. 10. Kirwan’s sister told him their mother, Paulette Kirwan, 66, had been involved in a serious crash on Highway 97 outside Klamath Falls, where she lives. Less than half an hour later the Oregon State Police notified the family that Paulette had died at the scene.
“You just don’t think you’re going to get that call,” John said.
According to news station KDRV, the Oregon State Police reported that Austin Haynes, 22, of Chiloquin was traveling southbound in a Dodge Ram pickup when he crossed into the northbound lane and into a blue 1996 Ford Aerostar van driven by Melquiades Ibarra, 57, whom the family described in Paulette’s obituary as her “soulmate” and “longtime partner in life.”
Haynes was not injured and Ibarra sustained some injuries, but Paulette, riding in the front seat of the van, was killed. According to the news station, Haynes showed “signs of impairment” and was lodged in the Klamath County Jail for manslaughter, reckless endangering, assault III and driving while under the influence of intoxicants.
John said his family, including two brothers, two sisters, Paulette’s grandchildren, her twin sister and other members of a large family were all “taking it pretty rough,” as were his mother’s co-workers and friends.
“All of these people were affected permanently by someone’s decision to get behind the wheel and drive,” he said.
Paulette worked for Klamath and Lake Community Action Services, helping the area’s struggling residents with things like getting their heating bill paid. John said she was a loving, generous person who “would bend over backwards to help anybody.”
The family can’t have a funeral until Dec. 2 because they have to wait for an autopsy that will aid in the criminal investigation into her death. John said it was difficult on the family to not have closure right away.
They’ve also spent time thinking about the consequences of impaired driving.
“People think, I have no way home, I can’t leave my car here, I can’t call someone,” John said, “but I would urge anyone who has had too much to drink to find another way home.”
Hermiston Police Department has seen a big drop in DUII arrests, with 50 so far this year compared to 90 for 2016, but Chief Jason Edmiston said that doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in drunk driving so much as a hectic year for the department.
“We have had two retirements, one new officer at the academy, one new lateral officer [an officer from another agency], two extended medical leaves of officers, and two officers attending the month-long supervisor training in Plano, Texas,” he said.
All the change, Edmiston said, helps account for the decline in arrests. But Hermiston police catching impaired drivers could take a quick tick up.
“Even though we had a lot of change, we will be out there in an overtime capacity working on grants specific to impaired driving this holiday season,” Edmiston said. “It’s still important for us to be proactive.”
Oregon law enforcement agencies made 3,915 arrests for DUII through the second quarter of this year, according to the “State Of Oregon Report Of Criminal Offenses And Arrests.” The statewide total for 2016 was 8,484 and 2015 was 7,987.
Crashes involving drunk drivers increases this time of year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,461 people died in traffic crashes in 2016, and 28 percent (10,497) of those fatalities were in crashes with a driver who had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit of .08 percent.
That same year, 781 people died in drunk-driving-related crashes in December alone. During Decembers from 2012-2016, the NHTSA reports 28 percent of crash fatalities — 3,995 people — involved a drunk driver.