Saturday, September 27, 2014

Drinking and Driving

Times have changed. In one of my favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, released one year after I was born, there is a memorable, at times hysterical scene involving driving while under the influence of alcohol.  It starts when our hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is kidnapped, having been mistaken for someone else. He is brought by two thugs to a huge mansion in suburban New York where the boss of the operation, a smuggler of state secrets (James Mason), is under the impression that Roger is a government agent on his trail. Having gotten no information out of Thornhill, the bad guys plan to dispose of him by filling him up with a fifth of bourbon, then placing him behind the wheel of an automobile headed in the direction of a cliff with a several foot drop into Long Island Sound. What they underestimate is Roger's keen sense of self-preservation, and a super-human tolerance for alcohol. In a later scene with a real G-man who intends to take advantage of Roger's accidental relationship with the bad guys, Roger reveals his modus operandi:
Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.
Anyway, completely tanked but still with his wits about him, Roger with a bad case of the room zooms, somehow gains control of the car before it goes off the cliff, and takes us on hair-raising ride through the back roads of Long Island where he zigs and zags as best he can avoiding oncoming cars while at the same time trying to keep his eyes open and the car on the road. He's taken off to the hoosegow after he slams on the brakes to avoid a bicyclist in his path and is rear-ended by the cop on his tail. After spending the night in the pokey on the charge of drunk driving, he appears before a judge at a hearing accompanied by his lawyer and his mother, none of whom believe his far-fetched tale. Defending his innocence, he pledges to the judge, the police, and all within earshot to "get to the bottom of all this" with or without their help. Upon hearing this his wacky mother throws up her hands and admonishes Roger by saying: "Just pay the two dollars dear."

Twelve years after the movie was released, while the penalty for driving under the influence was more than two bucks, it was still little more than a slap on the wrist. I remember visiting my uncle's family about twenty miles from our home. Since my father came directly from work, my parents drove there separately. My dad could really put away the alcohol back then in his prime, but that evening he drank more than even he could handle and was visibly drunk. As there were only two drivers in our family at the time and absolutely no question that we would leave with as many cars as we arrived in, my drunk father drove home and I drew the short straw as the person who was to accompany him. I may have had more terrifying moments in my life, but I can't remember any. The trip may not have been as hair raising as Cary Grant's joy ride in the Hitchcock movie, but it was bad enough. The funny thing was, even though my dad was completely shit-faced, no one, not even my mother thought twice about sending us off into the night with no more than a giggle noting my dad's condition, and an ironic "drive carefully" to send us on our way. God certainly must have been looking out for us that evening because we somehow made it home without incident.

A dozen years later, DUI penalties were more than just a slap on the wrist. That was the era when thanks to groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), it became unfashionable to chuckle while putting a drunk friend or family member behind the wheel of a car. All that didn't prevent me on occasion from driving when I shouldn't have. One evening when I was on a softball team and the other team didn't show up for a game, our team put that extra two hours to good use by heading straight for the bar. With the head start, by the end of the evening we were all pretty wasted. It just so happened that I drove to work that day and wasn't about to keep my car in the garage overnight, so I drove home in a mild stupor.  Now my father was a very aggressive driver while sober, and even more so when he was drunk. Since I never shared my late father's sense of self-confidence, not by a long shot, I would by and large describe myself as a defensive driver, especially while shall we say, tipsy. That evening I planned my journey very carefully, hoping to minimize any chance of causing anyone harm or getting into trouble by choosing the road less traveled to get home. To this day I can remember practically every moment of that commute home, all two hours or so of what should have been a twenty minute trip, driving half the speed limit with my face about five inches from the steering wheel. My memory of that evening ends the minute I got home when I passed out on the floor.

Flash forward some thirty years to today where there is zero tolerance for drunk driving. A DUI conviction now can result in the indefinite suspension of one's driver's licence, serious time behind bars, and social ostracization. While all that should give pause to reasonable people before they drink and drive, there are still folks who throw all caution to the wind and get behind the wheel when they have no business to do so. According to MADD, that number is about 300,000 per day. Last Saturday night, a husband and wife were driving home to the Milwaukee area after attending a wedding in Chicago. As they were passing through Kenosha, little more than half way home, they were hit head on by a pickup truck going the wrong way on an interstate highway at an estimated speed of 100 miles per hour. The husband died instantly and his wife sustained very critical injuries, but not life threatening. Their two children fortunately were not with them at the time, they were informed that they would never see their father again by their uncles. My wife and I learned of the tragedy Sunday evening. The deceased was my wife's first cousin.

Moments before the accident, the driver of the pickup truck that killed a member of our family fled the police after being stopped, then continued driving south in the northbound lanes of the superhighway.

It's customary to use the word "allegedly" to modify the actions of someone involved in a criminal act who has yet to be convicted of a crime. That small courtesy is seldom given to drunk drivers. The news reports immediately told us that a witness to the accident who offered help to the injured, noticed that the cab of the pickup truck which struck my wife's cousin's car reeked of alcohol. It was also reported that the woman passenger in that vehicle told police that she and the driver had been drinking that night. You may draw your own conclusions but I'll just go out on a limb and say the guy behind the wheel who killed my wife's cousin was drunk.

If he lives, and at this point that's about a fifty-fifty proposition, he'll be in serious trouble. Beyond all the legal charges that will await him should he survive his injuries, if he has any conscience at all, he'll have to live with all the pain and suffering he caused so many people. Because of his stupidity, he'll have to live with the fact that a father will never get the chance to see his boys grow up; he'll never get to meet his grandchildren. Because of his recklessness, he'll have to live with the fact that the boy's mother in addition to fighting for her life through terrible pain, has lost her best friend and soul mate, and will have to raise her children without a father. Because of his criminal behavior, two boys have lost their dad at an age when they need him the most; the rest of his family has lost a loving brother, nephew, cousin and an uncle. Scores of folks have lost a dear friend and colleague, and a couple who got married last week in Chicago will forever be haunted by the fact that a tragedy befell two guests leaving their wedding. I could go on and on about the number of people who have been hit by this particular nightmare. The point of all this is to say that we forget how intricately all of us are connected, our actions not only define us, but other lives as well.

In Illinois the penalties for drunk driving are harsh; a first offense DUI conviction here results in a minimum of one year suspension of the driver's licence, a fine of up to $2,500, and up to one year in jail. Wisconsin's penalties are tough but not nearly as much as those in Illinois, which may explain why the Dairy State according to its own DOT web site, has the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation.

There are some who would argue that laws severely punishing drivers without exception caught driving above the legal limit of alcohol in their veins are unfair. They might argue that having an amount of alcohol above an arbitrary percentage, does not necessarily mean a person will be more likely to cause an accident than someone driving with other distractions, some of which are completely unavoidable. It's not even unreasonable to say that some people are better drivers while tipsy than others are stone sober. Taking away a person's ability to drive is often tantamount to taking away that person's livelihood. Incarceration causes irreparable harm to a reputation, and the fines add insult to injury. Besides, the tough laws already in place didn't prevent the Wisconsin driver from causing the deadly crash last Saturday. Some would argue draconian laws that take away people's rights, their liberty, and the ability to support themselves based on what is essentially a case of bad judgement, are simply bad, unreasonable, and ineffective laws.

I would counter with what should be obvious: driving a car is a privilege, not a right. Getting behind the wheel of a two thousand pound machine that is easily capable of speeds of well over one hundred MPH is a deadly serious proposition. Along with accepting that privilege comes a contract the driver makes with society, pledging to accept and uphold the rules and regulations placed upon all drivers, not just some. In other words those of us (like me) who foolishly believe we're good drunk drivers, don't live by a different set of rules than anybody else. Despite the terrible experience of our family this past week, tough drunk driving laws keep at least some drunks off the road and do in fact save lives. Of all the impairments and distractions that drivers face on a daily basis, drunk driving, (unless you're Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest), is entirely avoidable. Every driver knows the legal consequences of driving under the influence so there is simply no excuse beyond sheer stupidity to put oneself into the position of getting a DUI.

A more important detriment to driving under the influence than getting busted should be the thought of the terrible carnage of fatalities caused by drunk driving. According to MADD, around 10,000 people each year are killed by drunk drivers who account for one third of all traffic accidents in the United States. Just imagine, 10,000 deaths each year that could have easily been prevented if only the people who caused them had thought about the terrible consequences before drinking and driving. A sobering thought indeed.

As we have seen, we are all inexorably connected by our actions. Our cousin and his family were the victims last week. This week it may be a loved one of yours. The way I see it, supporting and abiding by the strict rules we have on the books regarding drinking and driving is a small price to pay, even if they save only one life.

Who knows, that life may be your own.

If you are so moved, the following is the address of a fund to help our cousin's wife and her two boys:

The Robert F. Miller Family Memorial Fund
Landmark Credit Union
2190 Wisconsin Ave. Grafton, WI 53024

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