Mississippi Highway Patrol State Trooper Jose Watson, representing Troop D of District Two, spoke to Attala County teenagers and parents about the dangers and consequences of impaired driving, appropriate conduct during roadside traffic stops, and the importance of a sober lifestyle as part of the Attala County Library’s summer program, “Oceans of Possibilities.” Watson’s presentation was titled “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”
Watson, who serves Attala in addition to nine other counties, opened the program by encouraging young listeners to choose a career path that they are passionate about, just as he did by joining the Highway Patrol. Watson also serves as a recruiter, field training officer, and public affairs officer. He serves his community as an assistant pastor, as well.
“I came here because I really love what I do,” said Watson. “As you grow older and as you get into your career, choose a path that you really have a passion for with something that you really like to do that you can get paid for.”
Watson asked the group why they believed he was there to speak about the dangers of impaired driving and the importance of sober living.
“Because a lot of people die from drunk driving,” answered one teenager.
In agreement with the answer, Watson explained that there has been a spike in impaired driving accidents among youth, especially in summer months.
“It’s the summertime. You’re bored and don’t have anything to do. ‘Hey, let’s drink, or let’s pop some pills. Let’s hit a little blunt every now and again or a little meth,” said Watson, imitating a negative influence that could steer teenagers down a bad direction. “I know you all are looking at me like, ‘I’m not doing it.’ But somebody your age is that is right around you. Sometimes, it could be a relative or close friend. There are people who have influence on you that are older than you but are having you do things that aren’t legal or right that will cause your body and other people in your life harm.”
The trooper then stressed the importance of wearing a seatbelt when riding inside or operating a motor vehicle. He shared several personal experiences of instances when he has arrived at the scene of a fatal accident and the victims were not wearing seatbelts.
“I can’t express to you how many times I’ve been to an accident where, had they had a seatbelt on, it would have saved their lives,” he said. “You’re going to hear a lot of horror stories because I want you to understand that your lives are important. This is real life stuff. This is not on TV. This is real life, and these are people who have real life issues.”
Watson then shared personal stories with the group about times he has knocked on the doors of strangers in the middle of the night and informed parents that their child was killed in an impaired-driving-related incident. When he did, the room fell silent.
“That’s how quiet the conversation gets,” Watson told the teenagers. “Sometimes I have to grab the individual to keep them from hitting me while giving them a word of comfort. Sometimes, they just slide down the wall. Other times, the whole house lights up, and everybody comes out from the back (of the house). Then, you tell them the news, and you’ve got them hollering, sliding down walls. They’re on the floor or going outside running around in the front yard. Neighbors are up. And God forbid it’s a family neighborhood where people are related to each other in the community right around each other. Everybody’s up because of a decision you made to drive impaired.”
He said that alcohol consumption is not the only cause of impaired driving. Ingesting marijuana before operating a vehicle is also considered driving impaired.
“Impaired driving can be weed — marijuana,” said Watson. “A lot of times people don’t understand this. Any amount of marijuana will get you a DUI. If you puff three times and you’re driving, you’re impaired. That will get you a one-night stay for eight hours in a county jail. And guess what? Y’all don’t have one here. You won’t be locked up in Attala County; you’ll have to go to Carthage. Now, not only are you locked up, but you’re away from home and locked up. I’m not trying to scare anybody, but I’m trying to let you know.”
Part of Watson’s message was also how to conduct oneself when stopped by a police officer or highway patrolman.
“Everybody can go home, and that’s part of my message I’m wanting to convey to you today. Everybody can make it home. On a traffic stop, you can make it home. If you’re DUI, there’s still a chance for you to make it home. But you’ve got to be smart. Who did the wrong if I pulled you over and smelled alcohol on your breath?” he asked.
“Yourself,” a young listener responded.
“Right,” said Watson. “You brought it on yourself. Whatever I say, think, or how I handle it is on me. Young people have to learn to be patient. You can cut up with me on the side of the road, but I know we’ve got a court date coming.”
Watson stressed the importance of being respectful and obeying officers when pulled over because it could later affect the outcome if one is found guilty.
“I’ve met the judge before you’ve met the judge. If we come to court, they already know me. They’re trying to figure you out,” said Watson. “But if I tell the judge, ‘Hey, she was humble, respectful, and she admitted she was wrong. What can I do to help her? She’s young. She doesn’t need this on her record. Let’s try to help her. We can send you to drug court or a 30-day program where you can get some help. Once you get through with that program, it can never hit your license or your record. But once you get a DUI on your record at your age, what do you think your college administrator or admissions department is going to do when they see it on your license?”
The trooper told the group to never put hands in their pockets when an officer is investigating a crime or incident because it is a sign of aggression. Additionally, Watson said to never immediately open the door when pulled over because it is another sign of aggression. If the window can’t roll down, Watson said the best practice is to alert the officer of the issue while communicating through the closed door. Then, it will likely be okay to open the door, following the officer’s instruction. Watson spoke to the danger in the world today, especially for police officers and patrolmen.
“I want to see you open the door because a lot of times guns, knives, and weapons are in that door. It’s easy for somebody to open the door with their left hand, reach with their right hand, and shoot me. This is real life out here. It’s not a play game. People are really shooting at us, and we are really shooting back. It’s so serious right now.”
Then, Watson paused for a moment.
“I got quiet because we just had an officer in Mississippi get killed,” said Watson, referring to the recent shooting death of Meridian police officer Kennis Croom. “I went to the service. That was last weekend, and I did see the video from the officer’s camera. Putting on this uniform is tough.”
At the end of the program, Watson brought several teenagers up to simulate a field sobriety test and allowed them to try to pass the test wearing “drunk goggles.” Watson then answered questions from both the teenagers and parents and showed several YouTube videos of fatal accidents caused by impaired driving.
Watson told The Star-Herald that it is vital to teach young people about the dangers of impaired driving because they are the future, and they possess the power to take the message to others and spark change in their communities.
“Part of what we do in the Department of Public Safety and especially with the Public Affairs Division is to go around and share with the community. We believe if we can reach the young people, then the young people will take that same message to their parents and to older people. We can draw together a unity pact that we can have safer highways and safer roadways,” said Watson. “I believe the children are not just our future, but they are our now. If we can get one to change the mind of another to do right, I believe that attitude and atmosphere will spread. Everybody will probably come together and drive safe and be more aware of our environment, especially when it comes down to driving impaired, consuming alcoholic beverages and driving, or smoking any kind of illegal drug. We can get a handle on it.”