News 13 Exclusive: FHP troopers work to combat impaired driving in the area

Local News

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)– According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, impaired driving is the cause for a 1/3 of traffic fatalities.

This statistic rings true for News 13 reporter Tess Rowland, who was involved in a car crash back in May in which police say a drunk driver was behind the wheel. Rowland is still recovering from several fractures that resulted in five surgeries.

Rowland participated in a ride along with Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Sue Barge. Barge has been in law enforcement since 1998, she’s also a Certified Drug Recognition Expert with a passion for making dui arrests.

“I just couldn’t believe that people could be that impaired and not care about other people and crash, and cause death and injury,” Barge said.

Rowland and Barge rode out the night of Oct. 12, and although it was only a Tuesday, the night was eventful. It resulted in four arrests of individuals charged with driving under the influence.

Within just minutes of the ride along, Barge got the call of a crash where a driver reportedly pulled out on a red light and hit a dump truck, on the corner of Frankfort Ave. and 390 in Panama City.

“As soon as we started talking to her I could see signs of impairment with her speech and how she was responding to me,” said Barge.

Barge then proceeded to search the woman’s car where she found drugs. Then she began a field sobriety test.

First, she examined the woman’s eyes to see if there was an involuntary jerk, which she said was often a sign of impairment.

She then asked the woman to walk in a straight line, heel to toe. The woman failed both tests, and Barge began to breathalyze her.

Troopers are able to do this road side, using a special intoxilyzer, found only in 3 trooper cars in our area.

Barge said not only does it save the investigators time, but it also gives a more accurate blood alcohol content reading.

“DUIs can take four to six hours and a lot of that is driving to and from the accident scene, and waiting on breath testing,” she said.

The woman’s blood alcohol level registered at zero, and while Trooper Barge said the drugs were prescribed to her legally, it’s illegal to drive impaired. She charged the woman with driving under the influence.

In this specific crash, Barge believes the the 26-year-old was closer to hurting herself.

“She is very lucky she didn’t die from that crash,” Barge said, but she adds, this is all to common for the area.

“You can probably find an impaired person about anytime of day, between drug and alcohol impairment and this is a tourist place,” she said.

Barge is now working to teaching other troopers to become drug recognition experts in hopes they too can spot the signs and take impaired drivers off the road. Barge is also working to secure grant money so that more patrol cars can have intoxilyzers, and can work DUI cases more quickly.

News 13 and Florida Highway Patrol Troop A will also be participating in the ‘Walk Like Madd’ event in Fort Walton Beach on Oct. 23 at 9:30 a.m. in the Landing Park. You can sign up here.

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