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What Drunk Drivers Taught Me

Happy New Years! It’s a time for a new beginning, for a celebration. Many celebrations involve alcohol, and unfortunately, people choosing to drive after drinking. Everyone thinks, I’ll be careful. It won’t happen to me. My experience working for Mothers Against Drunk Driving taught me differently.

I was 21 years old, just beginning my foray into the working world and just recently able to drink legally. My job was to introduce and lead panel discussions where victims of drunk driving crashes spoke to groups of offenders: people ordered by the court to participate after a DWAI or DUI charge. I’m sure I was hard to take seriously at the time, dressed in a pretty blouse, hair just so, looking so young. I stood up in front of 50-100 people and talked about the statistics and the goals of MADD. The main emphasis of that speech was to let people know that MADD worked toward getting drunk drivers off the road. “This doesn’t mean we’re against drinking,” I said earnestly. “Just make the right choice. Don’t get behind the wheel of the car.” I learned that it’s not that simple because the problem is that alcohol was THE problem for many of those people listening. There are a small percentage of people who happened to get caught one of the rare times they drank and drove, but for many they got caught the one time out of a hundred that they made that choice. The offenders who spoke on the panel owned up to that fact.

James was 30 years old when he spoke on our panel. He had a youthful face that belied the fact that he had killed someone and spent time in prison. Until the crash, nothing could stop his drinking, not a few DUI’s or a suspended license. He crashed into a family riding in a horse drawn carriage as they were crossing a bridge. The man died, bleeding to death in the street, while his wife held him. His widow shared her story on the panel next to him. She explained how she picked up the novel that her husband was reading with the kids that night and tried to fill the void he left. She told how her little son thought he was to blame somehow for what happened because he was sitting in his dad’s lap. James’ wife stayed by him while he served time in prison. They had small children at the time that he spoke on our panel. His guilt was palpable. His penance was telling his story again and again. The widow forgave him; but it didn’t seem like James forgave himself.

The other offender who spoke on our panel was someone who many in the audience could relate to. Otto was a Harley biker and a heavy drinker. He knew how to hide from the cops, fly under the radar. The night of his crash, his luck changed. He almost caused a head on collision and then slid onto the pavement, under a car, losing his leg and his dignity to alcohol. He’d get the crowd laughing about how he’d worry whenever he’d see a car with ski racks come up behind him, thinking it was a copper. He talked about the impact of losing his leg on his life. No more motorcycle riding. He gave up drinking finally after the crash. I really liked this guy. I hope he stayed sober.

Among the survivor’s stories, there is one that comes to my mind a lot. A woman told the story of her 25-year-old son who was struck down by a drunk driver in a car crash. He was a beloved son, the youngest of many in a close Hispanic family. He didn’t die right away; he languished in a drug induced coma. His mother had to let him go. They decided to remove life support. His mother sat with him, feeling the life leaving his body. She kissed his forehead, his arms, his hands and so on. She felt that it was right that she should be with him at the moment of his death, as she had been with him at the moment of his birth. As a mother now, I can recognize the depth of her pain. I know the depth of love I feel for my own children. I can’t imagine how she went on. Guilt strikes survivors in many ways. She felt guilty that she hadn’t finished altering a nice suit for him to wear when he was alive. Instead, he wore it for burial. She implored the audience as a parent, “Please get help if you can’t stop drinking. Don’t take away someone’s child.”

I was vicariously traumatized by hearing these stories every week. I burst into tears one night when I saw a crushed car on the side of the road: no victims standing on the side talking to police. I assumed they were all on their way to the hospital. The good thing about this experience was that I will never drive after more than one drink. My husband abides by the same rule. Please make yourself a promise: If you have drinks when you go out, don’t drive. If you can’t go out without getting drunk, get help.

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