I-TEAM: DUI arrests of commercial drivers are on the rise

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 7:04 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - With the Interstate 20 corridor running through the heart of our area, most of us share the road with big trucks every day. But our I-Team found DUIs are on the rise for commercial drivers, putting you and your family at risk.

Driving an 18 wheeler — with 40 tons of cargo — comes with extra responsibility.

“Your truck is so big, and you have so much weight, you have to always be in your right mind, right frame of mind when you’re behind the wheel of one of these,” said Michael Hugley.

Hugley has been hauling cargo up and down I-20 for 26 years and he’s pretty much seen it all. Some things you can’t unsee.

“Seen cars go under big trucks and trucks go right over cars,” he said. “You can’t stop a truck, especially like this when you’re hauling 144,000 pounds.”

Which is why state troopers are concerned with what they’re finding behind the wheel of these trucks.

“We’re finding anything from alcohol to marijuana, methamphetamines, ecstasy, basically any of the 7 scheduled drugs,” said Chasen Woodie, PIO for Georgia State Patrol.

Our I-Team found DUI arrests of commercial drivers are on the rise. Just this year alone, we’ve had more than 250 DUIs, and that’s just in four months.

Our I-Team crunched the data and also found truckers accused of DUI in 72 crashes on Georgia roads so far this year. Just eight months ago a trucker accused of DUI changed Michael Johnson’s life.

Michael Johnson was injured in crash with trucker accused of DUI.

“I look back on that day and thank the lord above that I am still here,” said Johnson.

He was driving a silver Kia on I-20 when deputies say a truck driver under the influence of drugs didn’t slow down for traffic stopped ahead.

“Next thing I know, I hear a loud explosion and I’m waking up. People are banging on the window and trying to get me out of my car,” he said.

Since then, he’s been in and out of doctor’s offices for months with neck and back injuries.

“I have to get people to cut the grass now. I can’t go out and cut the grass like I used to. Can’t play softball like I used to. Hindered a lot of things. Used to go out and do things with my kids, but that’s slowed way down,” he said.

The Chris Hudson law group is representing Johnson in court and attorney Chris Hudson who also serves as a part time judge in traffic court says their case load for this type of accident has grown.

“At present, we probably have two to three DUI trucking cases on our docket,” said Hudson.

That wasn’t always the case.

“I can tell you, it is alarming, because 20-30 years ago when I first started practicing law, it was very rare to see a DUI accident involving a tractor trailer. But there has been an uptick on my side, being a personal injury lawyer,” he said.

In response to the uptick, Georgia State Patrol has teamed up with the governor’s office of highway safety and local law enforcement to start road safety checks for big trucks.

“Drugs that can keep you awake longer, we’ve found that on some of our road checks,” said Woodie.

Three weeks ago they held a safety check in Grovetown pulling truckers over at the I-20 westbound weigh stations. They arrested three truck drivers for DUI here in our area. Six days later they arrested another six truck drivers at a checkpoint on I-16 seizing 67 grams of meth and four grams of heroin.

“I agree that they need to be charged. If I had my family out on the road and one of these was to hit them and kill them, it would be just breathtaking,” said Wade Morgan, truck driver for 22 years.

At these safety check points our I-Team found so far this year a total of 10 truck drivers charged with DUI for marijuana use, four charged with DUI for pills, and six arrested for DUI for alcohol. Officers say they found 18 drivers with marijuana in their truck and 12 more with other drugs.

But why the recent spike? While we can’t know for sure truckers say some of the industry requirements have changed and the pressures are different than they used to be with most log books now electronic instead of paper.

“Trying to beat the log books and just trying to hurry….some of them is just trying to run, run, run, to beat that 11 hour running time, and just getting in lots of trouble,” said Morgan.

Truckers we spoke with also point to delays at shipping and loading docks adding times to their trips for safety protocols, and short staffing from the pandemic.

“With the electronic log it constantly runs, so then the driver got to try to make up time to get somewhere to get offloaded,” said Hugley.

So could those pressures be adding to the pressure to stay awake longer, or unwind sooner?

What did your kids say when they saw the vehicle?

“They started crying,” said Johnson.

And how was that for you, knowing that you could’ve left them behind?

“(tears up) Emotional,” he said.

Whatever the cause Michael Johnson says it isn’t worth a life.

Another possible cause could be stronger enforcement. GSP says they’ve seen this uptick, so in turn they’re out there looking for DUI’s and arresting drivers. DSP says they plan to keep holding these safety checks to stop DUI truckers in their tracks.

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