MADD National President Jan Withers
2012 Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety Priorities
The State of Highway Safety
June 14, 2012
Good morning my fellow safety advocates. My name is Jan Withers and I am proud to serve as the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Several of my predecessors as MADD National President have had the opportunity to speak at this vital Conference over the years. It is an honor to follow them, particularly for this 30th anniversary meeting.
MADD and Lifesavers share a common time frame. MADD was founded in 1980 and Lifesavers started two years later. We’ve accomplished a great deal in that time. More on that later.
It is a pleasure to share the podium with NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman, who has shown a substantial commitment to traffic safety improvement.
It is also an honor to be here with so many of our law enforcement partners, who are our heroes on the roads. Will the law enforcement officers in the room please stand so that we can thank you.
I am here today on behalf of the millions of victims of highway traffic crashes that affect so many. I stand here representing all those individuals because my own daughter, Alisa Joy, was killed by a drunk driver when she was only 15. I always thought it would happen to someone else. But on April 16, 1992, I became that someone else.
It started with my husband receiving a phone call that Alisa had been in an accident—that is what he called it at that time. Of course, as it turns out, it wasn’t an accident at all. The truth is, someone made a choice—a tragic choice—to drive drunk.
Nobody thinks that it can happen to them. Even in that moment, as my husband told me that we needed to go to the hospital immediately, it never crossed my mind that she would die. Never. But she did.
Today, I want tell you Alisa’s story because behind the statistics we hear so often are real people—real lives cut short; then I want to talk to you about what we, the traffic safety community, has accomplished and what challenges lie ahead.
After hearing about the crash, we met up with my other children at the hospital. Alisa was in surgery. We waited an eternity until the surgeon came in after several hours of working on her. He sat me down in a chair and then sat down across from me.
I will never forget what he said very matter-of-factly. He said, “All of your daughter’s ribs are broken. Her lungs are punctured. Her diaphragm is ripped to shreds. Her heart sack is torn. Both her kidneys are cut in half and her liver is pushed up in her throat.” Then there was silence.
I finally struggled to put out any words at all. I uttered what must have seemed like an inane question, “What will her quality of life be?”
Now, at this point, you are probably thinking: “Jan, you must have realized that Alisa wasn’t going to make it.” But you would be wrong because the doctor never said it and, again, I never thought I would be the someone else that loses a daughter to a drunk driver.
He briskly replied, “That’s the least of our worries. Right now, we are sending her up to nuclear medicine to see if there is brain function.” When they moved her into a recovery room we were finally able to see her. After a few moments, I turned to Alisa’s older sister and said, “We’d better start notifying Grandma & Grandpa and the rest of the family.”
The nurse stopped and touched my shoulders. “No, dear,” she said. “She doesn’t have long now. You need to spend every moment with her that you can.”
That was the first time I was told that she was going to die. For the next I-don’t-know-how-long, I sat down next to her and held her hand, kept kissing her, and telling her I loved her. Finally, I whispered in her ear, “Baby, you don’t have to hold on for us. I love you and I will always love you. ” She died at that moment.
In the wake of her death, details of the crash surfaced.
The day started like any other day. Alisa was spending the night at her best friend’s house during Spring Break when they asked her parents if they could go out with two senior boys. What the girls didn’t know is that the boys picked up a couple of cases of beer earlier in the evening. So they hopped in their car, not realizing the danger. They drove to our local pond where only the boys continued drinking. When it came time to go home, the driver, now intoxicated, decided to try to scare the girls with excessive speed. He lost control of the car and hit a guardrail, tearing off the side of the car and throwing Alisa into the woods. I am most haunted because I know she laid there, alert and suffering alone, in the darkness. The first gentleman on the scene searched for her after he heard the other passengers of the car calling for her. Thankfully, he sat with her until she was medivacked to shock trauma.
Traffic Safety Culture
In the nearly 20 years since her death, MADD has changed the national culture on drunk driving specifically and traffic safety generally. We put a face and a name with the numbers. We got legislators, government agencies, and the media to understand that it was possible to do something about the human element of the traffic safety problem. Most of all, we helped Americans realize that drunk driving isn’t something that we have to live with..
Before MADD, there were a lot of meetings, plans and, unfortunately, ineffective efforts. Since MADD – and through other volunteer activities such as the pioneering work of Dr. Robert Sanders in promoting the country’s first child seat use law in Tennessee – the traffic safety culture has changed and substantial progress has ensued.
With the help of many here in this room, we helped pass the 21 Minimum Drinking Age law, establish .08 as a national standard, institute zero tolerance for youth, conduct high visibility enforcement campaigns like the country has never had before, and adopt hundreds of state laws that have saved thousands and thousands of lives. Thanks to the traffic safety community, what was once a joke on late night talk shows was no longer publicly accepted. Americans decided that enough was enough.
Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving
With that in mind, MADD has redoubled its efforts, focusing on enactment of laws and policies that work using science and data asour guide. We developed the Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving six years ago as a response to stalled progress - to look forward and decide how we are going to truly stop this carnage on our roadways based only on rigorous scientific evidence. It is the national blueprint to end drunk driving.
The Campaign has three tenets. Supporting of high visibility law enforcement efforts, especially sobriety checkpoints, requiring all convicted drunk drivers to use an alcohol ignition interlock, and developing of advanced alcohol detection technologies like the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS.
The Campaign has reignited the national conversation on drunk driving by making enormous progress at both the state and federal level.
And we are particularly proud that NHTSA Administrator David Strickland is the Campaign’s very enthusiastic Honorary Chairman.
In the states, we have passed 17 new all-offender interlock laws since the Campaign began; only one state had such a law when we started. Fifteen states now require interlocks for high-BAC offenders and while the right thing to do is require them for all drunk drivers, these laws are often a step in the right direction. All states now use interlocks in one form or another.
We are making great strides on Capitol Hill, with the House and Senate incorporating nearly all of the Campaign into their respective versions of the surface transportation bill.
Perhaps the most exciting element of the Campaign, with the most potential to save lives and prevent injuries, is the DADSS program. It is the ultimate crash avoidance technology.
If you have not heard of the DADSS research project, you will. It is the result of a public-private partnership between auto manufacturers and NHTSA, seeking to develop a non-invasive, passive technology that can detect a driver’s BAC. If the driver has a BAC of .08 or higher, the illegal level in all 50 states, the vehicle would not be operable by the driver. In fact, unless a driver is drunk, he or she won’t know that the technology is even in the car.
A key player in the decision making process on DADSS funding is one of the local Orlando Congressman, John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. For those of you who live in Florida, I encourage you to contact his office expressing support for the DADSS research effort.
I visited the DADSS lab outside of Boston last week for the second time, and the progress is remarkable. Yet more research and testing need to be done. This is truly game-changing technology, and we need your help to make sure critical research dollars keep the project alive.
I want the legacy of my term as National President to be the further advancement of the Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving. We have a realisticplan that, if we work together, will wipe out the need for MADD.
And that brings me to the last point I want to make this morning.
Challenge to the Traffic Safety Community
As we look at the progress that has been made since MADD was started and Lifesavers began, there is lots of good news – drunk driving deaths have been cut in half, seat belt use is a full 70 percentage points higher, more and more kids are properly restrained and are sitting in safer rear seats, we have graduated licensing laws that are proving to be effective in saving teens lives, and we are much more focused on doing something meaningful to address driver distraction.
And in addition to the many drunk driving laws already mentioned, there has been a sea of change in the way legislatures look at traffic safety issues with new laws for seat belt and child safety seat use, stronger GDL laws and texting bans. We also have excellent national high-visibility enforcement campaigns for seat belt use and drunk driving prevention during the year that are highly effective and helping to save lives.
But we still have almost 33,000 fatalities each year. And it’s largely due to the basic issues that we have worked on together for decades. Drunk driving still accounts for 31 percent of those deaths. Unbelted drivers and passengers accounted for 51 percent in 2010. And speeding accounts for 31 percent of the fatality toll.
And the progress on primary enforcement belt laws seems to have stalled. The last state to pass such a law, Rhode Island, put in a sunset provision that means the law will soon have to be reaffirmed. We are seeing too many states drop their motorcycle helmet laws. Two states, including Florida, do not have a booster seat law. And the concept of secondary enforcement for traffic safety laws is still in place.
We have the level of fatalities that we choose to have as a society. It’s concerning to see some states not only stalled, but backsliding, by rejecting proven safety solutions.
What should we do?
I mentioned that MADD focuses its activities on programs that work. We look at the science behind the policy. If a countermeasure does not work or is just not possible, we move on to find something that does work. We are interested in only one result – saving lives.
The message that I want to deliver today is that we must apply that same discipline throughout all of our traffic safety work. We must take a comprehensive approach and focus on the countermeasures that will help use our safety resources in the most cost-beneficial way. And we must reject doing the things that feel good, but do no good.
That is why MADD is prepared to call a summit meeting of leading traffic safety organizations and companies committed to keeping our roads safe. This summit would focus on a practical and realistic national traffic safety action plan that has all of us moving in the same direction, assuring that we save the most lives in the shortest time period. We need to commit ourselves to working together to support the strongest laws on all issues – drunk driving, distraction, belt use, child seats, teens – the best enforcement of those laws, and broad awareness by the driving public that unsafe behavior will not be tolerated.
Just as when MADD was founded, we know that we can do more together than we can apart. We’ve seen the promise of when traffic safety organizations and companies work together like the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign that created progress on seat belt use and laws. We’ve seen the promise of when companies and the government work together like the DADSS program. We’ve seen the promise of when law enforcement and government work together like Click It or Ticket and Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. We are going to need everyone – government, traffic safety groups, law enforcement, companies, and the public – working together on proven solutions if we are going to get to that wonderful day when there are no more deaths, no more injuries, no more crashes.
Alisa and I, as her mother, represent the millions of victims and survivors of drunk driving. Drunk driving is not just a policy issue to MADD volunteers. It is a deadly serious matter for us. To be blunt, I would rather be spending time with my daughter today – perhaps having lunch or playing with her children -- than be here with you in this room. But I am here because I am dedicated to making sure that others do not face the same tragedy.
And I am not alone.
I am proud to say that so many of us who have made the ultimate sacrifice and experienced this suffering of having a loved one killed or injured by drunk driving are passionately dedicated to working until drunk driving is off the front pages and in our history books. And we are deeply gratified that so many people, including so many in this room, have also dedicated themselves to working to make our roads safer.
On behalf of Alisa and the millions of people victimized by drunk driving, and on behalf of all victims of highway crashes, I want to thank you for having me here today and for what you do every day to protect our citizens.