A driver involved in a December crash that killed three people on Illinois 158 was heavily intoxicated and did not have car insurance, according to Illinois State Police and St. Clair County Coroner reports obtained by the News-Democrat.
Shortly after noon on Dec. 9, on the outskirts of Belleville, Alejandro Salen’s uninsured Ford Escape swerved out of the southbound lane and crashed head-on into a Chevrolet truck driven by 74-year-old Donald Hess, who was seriously injured. Salen, 48, was killed instantly, as were two passengers in the truck — Donald Hess’ wife Jerilyn Hess, 74, and their 24-year-old grandson, Christopher Craig. The three were on their way to a memorial service for Craig’s other grandfather.
Salen’s toxicology report, obtained Friday through the St. Clair County Coroner’s Office, stated that his blood-alcohol content was 0.31 percent — almost four times the 0.08 percent threshold for a drunken-driving citation in Illinois.
Experts say that at 0.30 percent, a person is reaching stupor level.
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The University of California at San Diego describes a BAC of 0.30 percent this way: “You’re in a stupor. You have little comprehension of where you are. You may pass out suddenly and be difficult to awaken. Passing out can also occur at lower BACs. But at lower BAC, you may decide you’ve had enough and go pass out. With a BAC of 0.30 percent, your body will be deciding to pass out for you.”
A BAC of 0.35 percent, according to the university, is “the level of surgical anesthesia. You may stop breathing at this point. Coma is possible.”
This wasn’t the first time Salen had driven drunk — his driving record includes an arrest in 2014 for driving under the influence when his blood-alcohol content was 0.21 percent. It was Salen’s first offense. Along with that first DUI, Salen was charged with driving without a valid license, improper traffic lane usage and operating an uninsured vehicle.
Salen’s vehicle was still uninsured in December, according to the police report. The Hesses’ vehicle was insured.
The police report indicates that Hess and Salen were not driving above the 55 mph speed limit, nor were they using cell phones at the time of the crash.
Illinois State Police Trooper Calvin Dye Jr. said the crash was one of the worst in his recent memory, though Illinois 158 is notorious for crashes. There were five fatalities on the road between Columbia and Belleville from October 2016 to January 2017. In addition to the December crash, Jody Graff, 48, of Columbia, died after her minivan struck the rear of a dump truck on Illinois 158 near Roenicke Road on Oct. 18. In the early morning hours of Dec. 19, Marlene A. Horn, 68, of Millstadt, was pronounced dead after the driver of an SUV crossed the center line and struck her sedan head-on on Illinois 158 near Roachtown Road.
Dye said driving on rural parts of state highways comes with inherent dangers.
“People daydream, look at their phones, think they can speed because there’s no police around,” Dye said. “There’s no concrete wall, no center median, nothing to stop you from driving into another lane other than yellow paint.”
Stronger punishment for driving under the influence, however, has created a deterrent against the dangerous practice that was once punished by “a slap on the wrist,” Dye said.
“Nobody gets behind a wheel of a car and says, ‘I’m going to go and get in a crash today,’” Dye said. “But if you hit somebody and injure them and your blood-alcohol content is above the limit, you might as well have committed a homicide, and the courts are going to hold you accountable.”
The Hess family could not immediately be reached for comment.