South Dakota tops nation in drunken driving-related fatalities over Thanksgiving weekend

Authorities said the driver of this car was charged with driving under the influence after rolling it on a Lincoln County road in 2016. A 2022 Forbes survey found 52% of South Dakota drivers have seen someone they know drive drunk after a holiday party. (Photo: Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office)

Jacob Boyko, South Dakota News Watch – The Jerry AllCar App has some sobering news for South Dakota drivers this Thanksgiving. The state ranks No. 1 for the percentage of fatal car accidents involving drunken drivers during the holiday.

Over recent Thanksgiving weekends, which begin 6 p.m. Wednesday and last until 6 a.m. Monday, the state saw an average of 0.79 drunken driving fatalities per 100,000 people.

That means 57% of the total fatal crashes involved drunk drivers.

The vehicle fatality report shows South Dakota far ahead of runners-up North Dakota and South Carolina at 0.55 and 10th-place Nebraska at 0.35 per 100,000 people between 2012 and 2021.

DSU prof knows consequences firsthand

The report is a blow to Chris Olson, an associate professor of computer science at Dakota State University in Madison. He’s been warning people about the consequences of drunken driving since Good Friday 2001 when he found himself paralyzed on the side of a road near Madison after he and his fiancee got into a vehicle with an impaired driver.

“We were smart enough to know all of us shouldn’t drive vehicles, so we all got into one vehicle,” Olson recounted about the night. “It’s a 13-and-a-half mile drive, we made it 12-and-a-half before entering the ditch and we hit an approach.”

Olson, who was 23, wasn’t wearing a seat belt. He was thrown from the backseat of the vehicle and broke his neck. His fiancee, 21-year-old Tana Thompson, was ejected from the passenger seat and killed.

“She was a DSU student going to school for teaching, and she loved kids and loved teaching,” Olson said. “We had hoped to spend our lives together, have a family, help on the farm and have the American dream.”

Though his crash was Easter weekend, the premise is the same, Olson said. People, especially young people, are coming home to hang out during the holiday weekend. And nobody thinks they will be the ones to get into an accident.

Arrests typically happen after driving impaired 80 times

In fact, the average drunken driver will have driven impaired about 80 times before his or her first arrest, said Rachel Martens, manager of victim services for the South Dakota chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“The choice of an individual to take an impairing substance and then drive has long-lasting effects on every sphere of their life,” she said. “Drunk and drugged driving is not an accident. It is a choice that can lead to a car crash, and that choice changes individuals’ and families’ lives forever.”

A 2022 Forbes survey found 52% of South Dakota drivers have seen someone they know drive drunk after a holiday party, which is the highest in the country.

Crash changed Olson’s life

Olson went on to graduate from DSU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in information systems, earned his doctorate from Northcentral University and got married in 2016.

But the impact from choices made that night remains.

He’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. He has some movement in his arms but none in his hands, so he types with plastic sticks or uses voice recognition software. He faces increasing health challenges related to the accident and can’t walk, get out of bed on his own, feed himself, dress himself or do many of things he could before that night.

Chris Olson is pictured with his wife, Stacy
Chris Olson and his wife, Stacy Olson. (Photo: Submitted)

Drunken driving in South Dakota

Despite the troubling Thanksgiving statistics, South Dakota is making headway, said South Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Robert Whisler.

“Our percentage of alcohol-related fatalities is at a five-year low,” he said. “To this day, it’s a 35% decrease from last year at this time.”

Whisler said Highway Patrol and other law enforcement personnel will be out running sobriety checkpoints, which he hopes will be a deterrence for anyone considering taking the risk.

“South Dakota motorists are aware that we conduct sobriety checkpoints,” he said. “And with that information, we hope the public makes a better decision before they decide to get behind the wheel.”

South Dakota defines drunken driving as anyone operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content greater than 0.08%, or while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or prescribed medication that renders them incapable of safely operating a vehicle.

South Dakota drunk driving laws

Drivers operating commercial vehicles are held to stricter 0.04% limit, and anyone under 21 years old is held to a 0.02% limit.

According to, South Dakota reported 5,522 drunken driving arrests in 2019, with 60 of those arrested being minors.

A first-time conviction for driving under the influence in South Dakota carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail, a $2,000 fine and a license suspension of at least 30 days.

Call your mom, even if it wakes her up

Despite the overall improvements, Olson said it’s disheartening to learn that even after 20 years of trying to educate those around him, drunken driving is still so prevalent in South Dakota.

“I always said what I should have done is called my mother,” Olson said. “It would have woke her up. But calling somebody else for a ride would be much, much better than having all of the consequences … with somebody losing their life and then me being a quadriplegic for 22 years.”