Make DUI deaths meaningful

By Jo Hellman

I am writing in response to the March 2, letter to the editor entitled “Guilt worsens tragic accident.” The comments the writer took exception to were my comments.

The letter writer asked: “What did you expect to achieve by including these comments?”

What I expect from the article and the remarks I made is that there be more awareness about the untold numbers of victims that suffer in the shadows of crashes such as these. Not just the driver, his family, coworkers and friends, but the professionals: from the police first on the scene, the DOT crew who have to redirect traffic, EMTs, rehab therapists, hospital staff and even the coroner.

They all suffer to some degree. How do I know? I hear their stories twice a month when they volunteer to speak on a panel to court-ordered impaired drivers and underage drinkers, driver’s education students and others.

I am sure those who witnessed the young man drinking and then heard of his tragic death began hearing “what if” in their hearts before they read the article and my comments. I venture to guess if they are put in such a situation in the future they will do their part to stop a possible tragedy from happening. I don’t “blame” them. 

There will be those who say: “Hey, I’m not my friend or brother’s keeper.” That accountability for others is not their responsibility. Perhaps, but sometimes people make poor choices that can be neutralized when others step in to help.

Blame is not the issue here. The issue is: What can we do to reduce DUI fatalities? Awareness is key to helping make the roads here safer for us all to travel. And shining the spotlight on DUI reminds people and, we hope, changes attitude and then behavior.

It was with such awareness, not “exploitation,” may I remind the letter writer, who is a chief, that NAS Whidbey Island posted crash photos at their gates for two years of the sailor who killed himself Feb. 3, 2003. Photos that Robert Walters must have driven by so many times and surely seen, and yet didn’t take to heart. Why? Perhaps because people tend to think such crashes only happen to other people.   

DUI crashes have hurt a lot of people who live here, emotionally, physically and otherwise.

I was in the Navy myself. And eventually I was a chief, like the letter writer. One day a man went fishing with his friends. And they drank beer and fished and had a good time. They had done this many times, and the story always had a happy ending. This was the mid 1970s. People did that and no one thought twice.

And then one night, one of the men, as he was driving home, hit something. He couldn’t be sure what “it” was, he later said. It was not until the next day when he saw blood on the windshield and a large dent on the hood, then heard on the local news of a fatality on the road he had driven the night before, that he realized that “something” he hit was a “who” not an “it.” He had hit a young woman who was walking in front of her house.

A young woman whose shoe was still lodged up in his car wheelwell. The shoe that was attached to her left leg nearly ripped from its socket and resting across her back as she lay face down in the gravel, her jaw half torn off. As her mother stepped out on the porch just as the car hit her daughter, and witnessed the whole terrible scene, I might add.

That young woman would have been 50 March 16. But someone didn’t think twice. And I lost a sister, Kathy, who is forever 20. So I know what it’s like to suffer such a loss of one so young and vibrant. Her death lit a flame that will never blow out as long as I am alive. And I’ve channeled my grief in hopes of making a personal negative experience have a public positive consequence.

I am sorry Mr. Walters made the decision to drink and drive. I am sorry his friends, coworkers and family must live with the consequences of that decision. I am sorry that from the time Mr. Walters left his home until he crashed, he endangered every person he passed, who have no idea they came so close to being a statistic and front page news. I am grateful, however, his decision killed no one else.

Chief Morgan states in his letter: “Thanks to you, they now have the misfortune of experiencing foundationless guilt and regret over a situation that they probably had no control over.”

The real misfortune here was Mr. Walters’ decision to drink and drive, a decision that ended his life and began what may be a tragic chain of consequences for others.

It is obvious by your letter Chief Morgan you cared about this young man, as did others. In his memory, I wish them all peace and the conviction that his death will not be in vain. Use that conviction to honor his memory in ways that will make other drivers think twice before they attempt to drive under the influence.

I also invite you and others to contact me. I am working on IDIPIC bringing impact panels to NAS Whidbey Island on a regular basis. Several commands have expressed interest in their personnel witnessing this intense seminar as safety training. 

So that, in the words of one NAS Whidbey official, we may find “solutions to the problems of impaired driving in our community!”

JoAnn  J. Hellmann is IDIPIC coordinator.

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