NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The holiday season is often characterized as a bright and cheerful time, but it carries a degree of heaviness for Melinda Campbell and her two teenage sons.

For them, it is a reminder of the loss they have felt ever since 42-year-old Michael Campbell was killed by a drunk driver who was heading the wrong way on Interstate 65 in Nashville.

“In January of 2015, when we lost him, it just impacted us in ways that we still feel today,” Campbell said. “The holidays are very, very hard here. This is a season that should be very happy, and we have a lot of weight.”

Melinda and Michael Campbell

Every year, thousands of families are left with an empty seat at the table after losing a loved one in a drunk driving crash. The risk increases during the holidays as more people travel and partake in holiday gatherings, filling their cups with punch and spiked eggnog.

“As far as crashes and the number of incidents that we see on the interstates, they do start to increase this time of year, more than any other time of the year,” said Lt. Bill Miller, spokesman for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Drunk driving increases over holidays

The Thanksgiving holiday is the highest traveled holiday in the nation, followed by Christmas, Miller said. As a result, the number of crashes tends to increase. However, Miller said a “significant percentage” of crashes over the holidays in Tennessee are also alcohol related.

“It’s a time that impaired driving has the opportunity to increase because so many people get together and alcohol is a part of their celebration, or part of their holiday traditions,” he said. “It’s definitely something we take note of.”

With holiday travel already underway, Miller said troopers will continue to maintain a strong presence on state roads through the weekend in order to identify intoxicated drivers and help prevent crashes. Operations will kick back up around Christmas and New Year’s.

It’s a mission Melinda Campbell said she is thankful for as a member of the state advisory council of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) of Middle Tennessee. Campbell became involved with the nonprofit shortly after her husband of 20 years passed away.

“MADD immediately contacted me and worked with me from the advocacy angle. Through that process, I found sort of a calling for myself,” she said. “I found that was a way I could keep Michael’s life important. There would be some use to the needless happening.”

She now speaks at schools and volunteers at events to help communicate the importance of driving sober. Although it’s been almost eight years since her husband passed away, Campbell said his absence still impacts her family in many ways.

Michael Campbell

‘Nothing is the same as it was’

A “creative and brilliant musician,” Campbell said everyone who met Michael was “taken in by his personality and his talent.” He had gone to Nashville on a whim Jan. 11, 2015, after a friend invited him to an Eric Church concert at the Bridgestone Arena.

“That wasn’t something he would have typically done, but he was invited to go and went,” Campbell said. “He loved music. Loved everything about music and shows, so he had just kind of gone on a whim.” 

As it grew later into the night and Michael still hadn’t returned to their home in Brownsville, Kentucky, Campbell said she began to worry. He wasn’t answering his cell phone or any text messages. She began calling several law enforcement agencies to try to put her fears at ease.

“I was eventually rerouted to Nashville Metro, and it was shortly thereafter that a deputy showed up at my home to tell me,” Campbell said. “All I remember in that moment was collapsing on my floor. I went into shock, so I don’t remember a lot from that night.” 

Footage from the Jan. 11, 2015 crash on Interstate 65 that claimed Michael Campbell’s life.

Michael had been heading home from the concert when a drunk driver in a Cadillac Escalade slammed into his Corvette, killing him and critically injuring his friend. The other driver had been driving for several miles on the wrong side of Interstate 65.

“She entered I-65 the wrong direction, so she caused quite a bit of chaos driving the wrong way on I-65, and eventually hit Michael head-on,” Campbell said. “Her blood alcohol level was .22 when it was recorded, but that was substantially after the point of impact.”

During initial reports of the incident, police told News 2 the driver said she “had way too much to drink” when they pulled her out of her car. At first, she thought she was the one hit by a wrong way driver.

The crash left Campbell as a single mother taking care of two boys— one with special needs — on a single income. Campbell said she was neither financially nor emotionally prepared for a life without her husband.

“There are just so many ways that it impacts us,” she said. “Our lives are not the same in any fashion. Socially, financially– nothing is the same as it was.”

How to stay safe while traveling over the holidays

Now, during the time of the year when drunk driving crashes tend to increase the most, Campbell hopes her story can help highlight the importance of designating a sober driver or finding an alternate way to get home.

“People’s choices are going to be people’s choices how they choose to celebrate, but there is really no excuse to get on the road,” she said. “If you’ve had one drink, that’s one drink too many to be behind the wheel of a car.”

Miller also warned against distracted driving and said he would encourage people traveling for the holidays to make “smart, wise decisions” by wearing their seatbelts and allowing enough time to safely get to their destinations without speeding.

“There’s going to be an increased number of drivers on the roadway, and with that being said, you looking away from the road, being a distracted driver, could lead to someone’s injury or death,” he said. “So please do not drive distracted.”

People should also ensure their vehicle is in good, working order before taking to the road, Miller said. That includes checking to make sure headlights are operational, and that tires are properly inflated with ample tread to prevent hydroplaning.

Windshield wipers should also be replaced as needed. But above all else, Miller said people should not be getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Doing so could result in criminal charges, or, ultimately, the death of someone’s loved one.

“The one thing that we stress to everyone is to not drink and drive,” Miller said. “Do not drive impaired at all. If you are a buzzed driver, you are an impaired driver, so do not mix alcohol and driving in any capacity at any level.”

Anyone who needs emergency assistance while traveling in Tennessee can dial *847 to reach the nearest Tennessee Highway Patrol District Headquarters.