Out Of Tragedy Can Come Positive Action
The imagined sounds continually rise to the surface of my conscious -- tires squealing on the pavement, the reverberating clash of metal on metal, the screams. Then silence. From some window someone has heard and called for help. Sirens pierce the night, headlights fall upon the bodies of three crumpled teenagers tossed helter-skelter across the intersection. One girl is dead; another is dying. The boy can't move; he has a broken neck. From a second car another 19-year-old boy emerges, holding his broken arm. He has run a red light at a high speed, broad siding a Toyota,sending its occupants flying from their vehicle. Now he is swearing, incoherent, and terribly, terribly drunk.
The dead girl is my daughter, Ann Brierly, three weeks past her 18th birthday, one week past her high school graduation. My oldest child - bright, funny, a talented artist and musician - enrolled at the University of Wisconsin on an art scholarship just two days before the crash.
In June 1981,when Ann and her friend,Lilich Shazar,a foreign student and only child, died in Antioch, the typical reaction was, "Oh, how awful. But - those things happen." Such things were happening in Illinois all right - with astounding frequency. In "Blood Border", straddling the Illinois and Wisconsin state lines at least 65 drunk driving deaths occurred in less than three years. Needless death. Deaths usually resulting because Wisconsin's legal drinking age was 18; in Illinois it was 21. Under-age drinkers flocked to Wisconsin bars,then tried to drive home,sometimes with devastating consequences.
It wasn't just in "Blood Border" that drunks were killing and maiming hundreds every year. Half the driving deaths in Illinois were alcohol related and the state's record on dealing with drunk drivers was one of the worst in the nation.
Society generally just shrugged its shoulders about the growing problem. Prosecutors told us no criminal action would be filed in our case, even though two girls died and a young man was severely injured. "Drunk driving cases are hard to prosecute," we were told. But we didn't give up and eventually Fred Forman,then Lake County State's Attorney, listened. A year later, the case went to court,a judge found the sailor guilty, and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. (He served nine.) To our knowledge,the sentence was the first of its kind in Lake County, and certainly rare in the state.
The wide media attention given to the case brought a phone call from Lake Forest school teacher Glenn Kalin, grieving over the death of his brother, Rob, at college in Arizona, at the hands of drunk driver. "Let's do something about this problem," Glenn said, and so we did.
In April 1982,we called a meeting at Glenn's school inviting people concerned about the drunk driving problem. More than 30 people turned out. These were the people who built AAIM - people who had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, parents, relatives, friends. One man, so shaken as he watched a drunk drive nearly run his wife and child off a busy highway, became one of AAIM's most creative and energetic members -Dr.Louis Greenwald. Dave Osborn, Shirley and the late Rich Binning, Paul Froehlich, Shirley and Tom Morgan, and many others like them signed on to tackle the problem. There were others, too -coroners, a legislator, and police, tired of picking up the dead and injured off the highways, then watching the drunk drivers walk away in court.
We shared a painful bond as drunk driving victims.But we shared something else - a determination to stop the killing. During the first few meetings, our mission, philosophy and priorities became clear.We needed to create greater awareness among Illinoisans that drunk driving is a crime and that there are no drunk driving "accidents." More importantly, we needed to tighten the laws, build in stiffer penalties, assure that courts would prosecute, and that those penalties would be imposed upon conviction. We needed to work with Wisconsin to achieve an age 21 legal drinking age in that state. And, we needed to provide emotional, legal and sometimes financial support to victims.
There were no other drunk driving organizations in Illinois in 1982. We investigated two others just emerging on the national scene and considered affiliating. Neither was a good "fit" with our philosophy and first priority - changing the laws. Both at that time leaned heavily on emotional public demonstrations to call attention to the drunk driving problem. Nothing wrong with that, but not for us, we decided. Tears and anger could be a turn-off to a legislator; we agreed to keep our tears within our meetings and take a firm, pragmatic approach to getting the laws changed.
The deciding factor was where the money raised would go. Other groups wanted it channeled back to their national organizations; a portion would filter back to local chapters. We wanted every penny we raised to support anti-drunk driving activities in Illinois. This has been and continues to be AAIM's approach.
AAIM found a strong legislative champion in Governor Jim Edgar, the Secretary of State. He took on the drunk driving issue, pushed for sound legislation, and created a citizens' task force to develop an integrated approach to the problem.
AAIM can be proud of its accomplishments. It was the first group in Illinois to launch a victims services program and won state grants to underwrite in. Shirley Binning took on the hardest job - that of victim services director until Pat Larson succeeded her. Now AAIM has extended that program to include provisions of financial aid to those most in need, something no other group in the state does.
AAIM was the first citizens' group in the nation to work with the state police to help spot and report impaired drivers. Our Drunk Busters program has had national publicity and is being adopted in a number of other states. The legislative battle has mainly been won and it has paid off - drunk driving deaths in Illinois have fallen in the last decade.
Now, AAIM continues to work to keep drunk and drug-impaired drivers off the roads. Today we work with other groups with similar goals as well. But let the record show that the people of AAIM have led the way in the drunk driving fight in Illinois. AAIM has set the standard for citizen action and organizational leadership in the state. Those standards are difficult for a volunteer organization to maintain, but maintain them we will -with your help. For this is a job that isn't, and may never be, finished. We do it gladly, in remembrance of those we lost, and in the fervent hope that neither you nor anyone you love will ever be a drunk driving victim.