Drunk Driving Can Be a Form of Child Endangerment

Last week was a whirlwind of activities. I was honored to meet with Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation and David Strickland, Administrator of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not only do they clearly care about the pain that drunk driving causes so many people in this country, they also are inspiring leaders seeking science-driven approaches to eliminate drunk driving. Indeed, they support MADD's Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving and when we celebrate the 5th anniversary of our Campaign on Nov. 16th, Secretary LaHood and Administrator Strickland will be present.

Our public policy team and I also met with the Honorable Debbie Hersman, Director of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Honorable Mark Rosekind, NTSB Board Member. For those who don't know, NTSB investigates major crashes, such as airline and rail crashes. They also make safety recommendations based on proven research and are committed to working with MADD to make endorsements of science-driven methods that reduce the dangers of impaired driving on our roads.

The moments that are always the most significant to me are ones in which I am privileged to connect with others who don't necessarily have prominent positions and are courageously working to make a difference. Many of you are following our Carl McDonald in his blog, "In Search of Warmer Summers," as he cycles across the country with his sister, Sallie. Each day they dedicate their ride to a person who has been killed or injured by drunk driving. Yesterday, they reached their finish line in Astoria, Oregon. They rode 4,769 miles. Amazing!

Carl touches my soul daily as I open a new entry in his adventure. Carl's precious little daughter, Carlie, was killed while traveling in the vehicle with an intoxicated driver. Even now as I write this my heart is filled with tears of empathy for him, knowing he now endures a lifetime without her. Too many of us live this same nightmare. We connect with Carl in a very real way. I am also filled with admiration and inspiration as he turns his energy into making a difference so others might survive.

He says he is going to continue blogging. He has committed to raising $20,000 for MADD as he raises awareness of drunk driving dangers during their excursion. He has not reached that goal, so if you find it in your heart to give, please do so. Your gift will help save lives. I can't think of anything more important. Just visit and you will see a link to Carl's blog. You may donate there.

Ron Claiborne, a reporter with ABC World News and anchor of the weekend edition of Good Morning America, met up with Carl and is doing a news segment about Carl's journey and his message. (We will make every effort to get the date and time it will air to you when we find out. Keep watching for it.) Ron then spoke with me to learn more about this topic of child endangerment. MADD considers driving impaired with a child passenger to be a form of child abuse.

Before that interview, I called my Iowa friend, Julie VanderWel, to ask if I could share her story with Ron. Her precious Gavin was killed when he was just ten years old while riding in the car with an adult, who Julie said had a blood alcohol concentation at twice the legal limit. He drove the wrong way down the road, hitting an oncoming car. He had two prior DUI's. Gavin's story is why MADD is working so hard to have every state in the nation require ignition interlocks for all convicted offenders. You are looking at little Gavin Wrather's picture above.

I first met Julie at our 30th Anniversary National Conference in Washington, DC last summer. She was alone and said she felt lost. Her heartbreak was palpable. We became instant friends and inseparable those few days and knew our friendship was permanent. Watching everyone in our MADD family embrace her with love and hold her up was so fulfilling. Nothing compares with the love, the mutual support, and the hope it offers. Julie told me that what she received at that conference gave her the hope to go on.

Gavin died two years ago on July 26th. When Julie answered the phone, I asked the usual, "How are you?" I could hear the struggle in her voice as she replied, "Anxious. The second anniversary of Gavin's death is approaching and I dread it. I am having a rough time. Sometimes I wonder if the anticipation is worse than the actual day."

I did tell Ron Claiborne about Gavin in the interview. Carl and Carlie, Julie and Gavin are why we make a loud noise. Did you know that 2 out of 3 children killed by a drunk driver are in the same vehicle with that driver? We cry out demanding that our society steps up to protect our children from this violent crime.

Julie is so right about the anticipation. Weeks leading up to that horrible day can be agonizing. My experience has been to make a plan for that day. Many of us who first tried to avoid thinking about it often say that we suffer less when we acknowledge it by doing something special. I have friends with whom we go to the cemetery each year, send up balloons, share fun stories about their loved one and if the occasion happens to be their birthday, we eat birthday cake. My point is, whatever works for you, just do it.

Our strength comes from our pain. Our strength becomes even more powerful when we speak with one voice - when our nation hears our united call to protect our families. Carl McDoanld, in his unassuming quiet manner, is helping to make our nation take notice. Julie, too, is now making a difference. Along with MADD, she has begun a campaign in Iowa, by erecting billboards with Gavin's picture and message: "THINK before you drink and drive. One Less Smile.....Gavin 1999-2009." Julie, in her unassuming quiet manner is helping to make our nation take notice. Carl and Julie are amazing, as are so many of you speaking in this united voice. Let us never stop until drunk driving is eliminated.

Hello and Goodbye

I offer my gratitude to our outgoing President Laura Dean-Mooney. She has crossed the country - the globe actually - effectively representing all of us in MADD. Her dedication and sacrifice these past three years is deeply appreciated. You have been a powerful voice for us, Laura. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Today is July 7th, my daughter, Alisa's, birthday. She was killed by an underage drunk driver 15 years after her birth, just 3 months before she turned 16. It feels absolutely perfect to me that I connect with you today for the first time as your new president. The day she was born was the launch of new joy in my heart. She was sunshine personified. As a little girl she was delightful giggles and dance. As she grew up she was gracious kindness and graceful dance. Here you see a picture of her in a rehearsal.

Today she would be 35. I wonder how she would have changed. Would she have a career in dancing? Would she have children? Would her hair still be long? What would she look like now? My friend Mary Klotzbach's son, Matthew, was killed when they were hit by a drunk driver in 2001. She says she wishes so much she could have current pictures of him. The photos of newly created memories abruptly stopped the day they died. We wish so much we could update our photo albums with snapshots of new memories.

I called MADD for help when I was paralyzed with pain. The sorrow was excruciating and the anger overwhelming. What I received was not only help, but I began to see glimpses of hope. When I could not stop crying, I was offered a kind heart. When I could not speak, my MADD advocate became my voice. At the same time, I was watching others in MADD - others who had experienced similar loss or who had been severely injured. They were their own voice or spoke for those who couldn't. They modeled strength I didn't have in my most broken days - but I wanted it - I wanted to get there someday. They were my beacons of hope.

So, as time moved forward, so did I. The day Alisa died, a piece of my heart died. I am forever different. Now, though, I know she moves forward with me. Along the journey so many people in MADD were first my beacons of hope and became my heroes. I watched them support one another. I watched them fight to save lives. I watched them courageously turn their pain into power. They taught me well, for I followed their example.

Today I am humbled to represent you, so many of whom are my close friends, and knowing I will meet so many of you who will become my friends. I feel we already know each other. We will touch one another's hearts. We are bound as a family in MADD. We are together to save lives. We are together to honor and support those who have been vicitimized by this violent crime, to protect our youth from the dangers of underage drinking, and to eliminate this scourge of drunk driving. I know this is a noble goal. I know this is an attainable goal. Today, I am humbled, knowing we will move forward together.

Jan Withers