As we gather in Choteau this week to celebrate the birthday of our nation, we need to pause and turn back the hands of time to a year ago, when our community lost a beautiful young person because of drinking and driving and failure to wear a seatbelt.

J.J. Werdal, 21, a 2015 graduate of Choteau High School, was a dearly loved youngest son and baby brother. He was a fierce high school wrestling champ and was known for his happy nature. He was a friend to many, and losing him in a one-vehicle rollover on U.S. Highway 287 after a night of revelry with friends is a hurt that can never be assuaged.

Please understand: we are not criticizing J.J. or his friends.

We are saying that J.J. made a misjudgment that cost him his life. We don’t want to see any of you make the same mistake, and we don’t think J.J. would want you to either.

In life, J.J. was known for always lending a helping hand. Please, think of him now, as your own personal guardian angel, helping you to make good decisions this 4th of July (and really, every day of the year).

We’d like to think that he’s here this weekend: sitting in every car with every person, urging them to buckle up before they even start the engine, and urging those who have been drinking to walk, call a friend for a ride, or just sleep it off in the back seat.

We want everyone to remember J.J. this week. Remember his joyous zest for life and remember all the good, amazing ways he touched those who loved him best. Remember him, and honor him by vowing not to drink and drive, by vowing to wear your safety belt every time you’re in a car.

J.J. wasn’t alone in 2018. Many people died last year in alcohol-related crashes. While 2018 statistics aren’t available, records from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a grim trend. In 2016, 10,497 people in the United States died in alcohol-related traffic crashes at a rate of one every 50 minutes for 365 days.

In 2017, 10,874 people died in our country in alcohol-related traffic crashes. In Montana in 2017, 56 people died in alcohol-related crashes, making up 30 percent of those killed on Big Sky highways and roads. Further, the NHTSA says that people ages 21 to 34 make up the largest share of those killed in these totally preventable accidents.

So, please, Choteau folks and visitors to our fair town, enjoy the 4th of July festivities, but do so responsibly. Don’t drink and drive. Buckle up every time you’re in a vehicle. Don’t let your friends drive impaired. Do not become another heart-breaking statistic.