Let's tackle drunkenness... and maybe save a life 

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It seems every year we lose one or two kids who think they're having the time of their life, but who are really only scripting their deaths.

They're out with friends and co-workers and without knowing it they're drinking themselves to death. They freeze to death in snowbanks, drown in still-running streams, get hit by cars. Others escape with near-death experiences, coming to in emerg with doctors and nurses welcoming them back to life, suffering nothing more than alcohol poisoning and a dreadful hangover.

I don't understand the allure of drinking to the point of passing out and thankfully I'm old enough to have survived my own evenings of excess. But I'd be happy to lend a hand to raise some consciousness around the issue to help people make better decisions.

I'd love to see bars stop over serving, waitresses stop looking at me like I'm some kind of freak when I order soda instead of beer when I've had enough, friends take some responsibility for friends who've abandoned their own, employers stop thinking they're off the hook by providing taxi vouchers.

We have all been reminded of this recently by the flowers along Highway 99, which are a memorial to Ellie Reinecke who died after being struck by a car when she was walking along the road at 3 a.m., Jan. 6, 2011 — and by her mother Penny's letter to Pique last week (Jan.9).

Unlike many who have written about this tragic experience though, I will not go as far as to say I can't begin to imagine the pain and grief Ms. Reinecke has gone through. Actually, I can. And while it may not be entirely politically or culturally correct to say so, most of us can as well. Not many of us have lost children, but many of us have lost spouses, parents and siblings and all of us, especially in this town, have lost dear friends... over and over again.

We've lost them to traffic collisions too numerous to mention: car-to-car, car to bike, car to fragile body. We've lost them to disease, disaster, drugs and depression. We've lost them on the mountain in more ways than we like to remember — some so gruesome they haunt us in our dreams. We've even lost them to meaningless, random murder. Grief and loss is a human condition few are spared. I'm not about to parse the quantum of Ms. Reinecke's grief against anyone else's; they don't make scales fine enough.

We've also lost them to alcohol. Ms. Reinecke may choose to forgive or revile me for saying so but the harsh reality is that Ellie was lost to alcohol. It's time to stop blaming someone else solely for her death.

The justice system in British Columbia did not fail Ellie. There simply was no crime committed, only a traffic code offence. The crown prosecutor(s) who considered the evidence decided there was no reasonable chance of successfully making a case for driving without reasonable consideration in the case of the driver who struck Ellie.

I don't know if the people in the prosecutors' office ever drive in Whistler on dark, rainy nights.

We drive on those nights in fear. Snow, snowplows and traffic conspire to make short work of the painted lines on our roads; just knowing we're in our lane is an accomplishment.

There seems to be no end to the number of pedestrians who can't comprehend how invisible they are on nights like the one of January 6, 2011. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved with the Walk Safe program — a legacy, in part, of Ellie's death — it's not possible to drive north or south from the village without suddenly encountering an invisible pedestrian, often with insufficient time to stop even if you're travelling well within the speed limit, who is fortunately walking on the road's shoulder.

In the case of Ellie's death, Ms. Reinecke must stop blaming Jamie Pate, the driver of the taxi that struck her, as well. It wasn't his fault. I don't know Jamie, have never met him. But I appreciate the guilt he carries over Ellie's death. I appreciate the fear I hear in other taxi drivers' voices when they tell me stories about their near misses with invisible pedestrians, events that occur almost every night they work.

Mr. Pate was speeding. Nine kilometres per hour over the posted limit of 60kph. That's the speed of a brisk walk over and above an already slow speed limit and it's a speed that'll virtually never get you a speeding ticket in this town.

Would it have altered the outcome three years ago if he'd have been travelling nine kilometres per hour slower? We don't know.

What we do know is the outcome would have been different; indeed there would have been no outcome at all, if Ellie hadn't been walking in the traffic lane. It would have been different had she been walking on the Valley Trail just metres away. And let's be honest, none of what transpired would have occurred had she not been drunk enough to have her judgment sufficiently impaired to put her in the path of Mr. Pate's taxi at 3:00 a.m.

Pedestrians whose poor decisions put them in the path of danger are the proximate causes of their own deaths. It could be argued that but for the very poor decisions Ellie made that fateful night, she would still be here today.

I'm not suggesting Ms. Reinecke forgive Mr. Pate. Maybe someday. But enough of the Old Testament desire for a pound of flesh. It's not going to change the outcome and it is going to eat Ms. Reinecke up inside unless she leaves it behind.

Let me offer an alternative.

Honouring Ellie's life by arranging for the flowers to mark the site of her death is a positive step. Seeing them earlier this month brought it back home to me. Witnessing the strong efforts of everyone behind the Walk Safe program at this year's welcome week also reminded me of Ellie.

Those things also brought back sad memories of a number of other deaths this town has experienced in the past few years, all due to a culture that encourages excessive drinking. You see, this really is a caring town. We'd be overjoyed if Ellie were one of the last people to die pointlessly because of bad decisions fuelled by the town's party atmosphere.

Maybe someday we'll figure it out. Until then, accept our condolences.


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