Officer sidelined by spinal injury in suspected DWI crash

By Tom Joyce -

A Mount Airy police officer is recovering from a spinal injury caused by a weekend traffic crash involving an allegedly impaired driver.

Sgt. L.T. Whitaker was hurt when his patrol vehicle, a newly acquired Ford Interceptor, was struck Saturday night on North Franklin Road by a 2004 Ford Taurus being operated by Cindy Lee Ross, 30 of Mount Airy. Ross is facing multiple violations, including DWI, as a result.

“He has a C7 fracture,” Police Chief Dale Watson said Tuesday of Whitaker, who has been with the Mount Airy Police Department about 12 years. C7 refers to vertebrae at the lowest levels of the cervical spine near the base of the neck.

The injured officer was transported by the Surry County EMS to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem after the collision.

“He was released on Christmas morning,” the police chief said.

Watson added that Whitaker is not suffering from paralysis or similar effects sometimes accompanying spinal injuries, but will be sidelined from his law enforcement duties for some time while on the road to recovery.

“We’re looking at a minimum of four weeks,” the chief added Tuesday.

“It was a bad accident.”

Wreck details

Members of the city police department responded to the scene of the crash involving the patrol vehicle at around 8:25 p.m. Saturday.

Sgt. Whitaker was traveling north on North Franklin Road, just north of Pipers Gap Road, when it occurred.

Ross, the driver of the Ford Taurus, apparently lost control of the car, which traveled left of the center line and struck Whitaker’s patrol vehicle nearly head on, according to police accounts.

Both Ross and Sgt. Whitaker were transported from the scene by the EMS.

Ross reportedly suffered only superficial injuries. Meanwhile, two passengers in the Taurus refused medical treatment at the scene.

Both vehicles are considered total losses.

Alcohol was suspected as a contributing factor in the wreck that members of the Mount Airy Police Department Traffic Crash Reconstruction Team were investigating at last report.

Along with driving while impaired, Ross is facing other offenses, among those careless and reckless driving and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Police vehicle hailed

The fact that a Ford Interceptor was involved offers a bad-news/good-news scenario.

While it is one of the newest patrol cars acquired by the city police department — one of two such models obtained so far as part of a gradual process to replace the present Dodge Chargers dominating its fleet — that also paid dividends in the crash.

If not for the extra safety and other features of the Interceptor, the collision could’ve had a much-worse result, Watson explained. For example, a push bar installed at the front of the vehicle likely prevented more serious injuries to the officer as well as damages.

And by the same token, had the Taurus driven by Ross struck a civilian vehicle rather than the Interceptor, the outcome might have included multiple deaths, rather than what did occur, “just the way the car is set up,” Watson said of the latter.

“It could have been a family.”

The police chief also said there is a lesson to be learned from the incident.

It reinforces the need for everyone on the roadway to exercise extreme caution and drive defensively, always being on the lookout for those who are less conscientious, according to Watson.

“Just around the corner, they may be someone who shouldn’t be on the highway.”

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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