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New group aims to stem tide of DUIs

"Deidre Britton was home alone at her Langley home three years ago this fall when an Island County Sheriff's car and a State Patrol vehicle rolled into her yard.At her door, the deputy and the trooper told her a story she never wanted to hear - a story no mother would want to hear.Early that morning her 15-year-old son, Jeremy, and his 14-year-old friend got into a car with a drunk man in Lynnwood. The man drove over the speed limit, lost control and the car slammed into a metal traffic signal. Jeremy was killed instantly.Britton plans to tell her story to groups of people who need to hear it most - those who have been arrested for drunk or negligent driving. She's a member of the Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County, a new non-profit group being coordinated by former Mothers Against Drunk Driving president JoAnn Hellmann. The purpose of the panel, Hellmann said, is to put a face on the victims and others affected by drunk driving in order to convince offenders and other at-risk drivers that it's simply not worth it to drink and drive.When there is raw emotion there, she said, people will more often get the message.The panel is designed to be part of a creative sentencing program for local courts. Hellmann said judges will mandate that people who have committed alcohol or driving-related crimes - such as drunk driving, minor in possession or negligent driving - attend the monthly panel as part of their sentence or deferred prosecution agreement.Hellmann said a variety of local people whose lives are touched by drunk driving will be on the panel. Family members of victims, like Britton, will be joined by convicted drunk drivers and their victims, police officers, ER nurses or doctors, paramedics, the coroner or local attorneys.While she admits the program may not have much of an effect on hard-core alcoholics, Hellmann says it's mainly targeted at social drinkers.When someone is arrested for DUI their thoughts are always of themselves. ... They can't see how their behavior could affect other people, she said. But the panel can change that point of view. Suddenly they think 'Gee, I could have been the one who caused that.' The group was started with a grant from Island Thrift. According to Hellmann, the group is expecting as many as 30 to 50 people to attend the panel each month. Each offender must pay $25. The impact panel, which is scheduled to start this fall, will be held at the Skagit Valley College lecture room next to Oak Harbor Library.The 90-minute presentation by the panel will not be confrontational or accusatory. Instead, Hellmann said the three or four panelists will simply tell their stories of how drinking and driving - or drugging and driving - has affected their lives.A police officer might describe holding a little girl as she died at the scene of a drunk driving accident. An attorney may explain how expensive drinking and driving is for clients. A nurse could describe treating a victim.The board members of IDIPIC include Department of Corrections Officer Rob Diekman, Oak Harbor High School Driver's Ed teacher Mike Hall, high school student Katie Ellis, Oak Harbor Probation Director Karen Lewis, Navy senior drug and alcohol advisor Julie Hunter, and others.Hellmann said many other counties run impact panels and have had success, though it can take years to prove a measurable reduction in drinking-related accidents. Even then, it can be difficult to directly link improvements to the impact panel.But based on the questionaires people fill out at the end of presentations, she said the panels really do reach some people.Which, Britton said, is enough. It will be worth it if one life can be saved, she said. -------------Talking DUIThe board of the newly formed Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County is looking for speakers to volunteer in a program designed to keep others from drinking and driving. The speakers can be victims, family members of victims or drunk drivers, convicted drunk drivers, police officers, paramedics or anyone else who has been affected by an intoxicated driver. Panelists can attend once a month, once a year or whatever they are comfortable with. Call JoAnn Hellmann at 675-8397.Donations to help cover the cost of training materials and training of volunteers can be sent to: IDIPIC, P.O. Box 358, Oak Harbor 98277. "

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