On March 27, 2008, Pennsylvania State Trooper Kenton Iwaniec finished his shift at the Avondale Barracks in southeast Pennsylvania and headed home. His car was hit head on at 10:15 p.m. when another vehicle with no lights on crossed the center line, traveling 73 mph in a 45 mph zone.
The driver’s blood-alcohol level was four times the legal limit and there were illegal drugs in her system. Investigating officers found a bottle of vodka in the back seat of her car, and also her 4-year-old son, unharmed and buckled into a child safety seat.
The woman sustained a broken ankle but Trooper Iwaniec’s multiple injuries were so severe that he died in surgery shortly after midnight, March 28, before his family came from Ligonier on the other side of the state. He was 24.
“Our family is not unique,” his sister Acacia Houck of Scottdale said. “Our story is similar to thousands of other families victimized by impaired drivers.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009 there were 10,839 people killed by alcohol-impaired driving crashes. That’s one every 48 minutes, accounting for nearly one third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
Honoring son’s legacy
Those statistics, combined with their grief, made Ken and Debra Iwaniec want to do something to honor their son’s life. They founded TakeOff, a race and walk that raises money to purchase preliminary breath test (PBT) devices, a tool for roadside evaluations of suspected impaired drivers. So far, 168 units have been distributed to state police and other law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania. The third annual TakeOff (www.trooperiwaniec.org) on April 21 at Iwaniec’s alma mater, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, will raise money for more.
“This is a way to keep his legacy going for doing the things that he wanted to do,” Debra said. “He had that need to serve others.”
Kenton shared his parents’ deep faith in the Church and was an altar server while growing up. He also served while in the Merchant Marines, as a St. Vincent student, and at the Catholic chapel at the Pennsylvania State Police Southwest Training Center.
Ken Iwaniec told OSV that after their loss, “We prayed to God for whatever he wanted us to do, to give us direction.”
After Kenton’s death, they began speaking at seminars as victims of impaired driving, and that year, the couple found a display of PBTs.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise money to get enough units for each one of Kenton’s classmates?” Ken mused.
That was the beginning of what he calls “a calling to keep Kenton’s legacy alive” and a way to get impaired drivers off the roads.
The first PBT went to the trooper who responded to the crash scene, then to Kenton’s classmates and the troopers at his station. More were donated to state police barracks and to small-town departments.
The units save time and money. The immediate roadside results enable an officer to determine if a driver should be taken to the station for a Breathalyzer or to the hospital for a blood draw. If the driver is not impaired by alcohol, the officer can arrange for a drug evaluation.
The Iwaniecs find some peace in knowing that PBTs also save lives.
“As a mother, I don’t want another mother to suffer the way I do,” Debra said. “Impaired driving is a preventable crime, not an accident.”
The Iwaniecs find comfort in the many stories that they continue to hear about Kenton and how he touched so many lives.
“What I think most about my brother is that he was a well-mannered gentleman and I want my sons to be like him, and I want my daughter to find someone like him to marry,” his sister, Sashonna Zacour said. “He was just an amazing guy.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.