The Lesson of MADD

Poster boards of drunk driving victims line a conference room at MADD Connecticut chapter headquarters in East Haven.

If you grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you know at least one person who was killed in a drunk driving crash.

For me, it was a beautiful girl with red hair and fiery spirit the year behind me in school. I didn’t know her, but knew who she was. She went to my church and was part of a large Irish brood known by everyone in town.

She was killed after the car she was riding in slammed into a tree late one night returning home from her summer job. In an instant, she was gone.

Back then, our attitudes and laws about drinking and driving were pretty lax. We hopped into cars after partying without thinking about crashing or getting arrested. One of my friends from Fairfield Prep drank so much one night that he passed out at a toll booth on the Merritt Parkway. No one took his keys, or called his parents. They simply shook him awake, and told him to move on.

Did I drink and drive? Yes, I did. I wasn’t drunk, but I would fail today’s standard for designated drivers, which is no alcohol. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. We were all a little dense back then.

Today, we know better. Drunk driving laws have been toughened, lowering the standard for drunk driving from .10 to .08 in Connecticut. Stricter penalties, mandatory jail time for repeat offenders, and ignition locking devices are in place to keep drunks off the road. But MADD’s biggest achievement may be in changing attitudes.

Beer cups after a road race.
Today’s teens, young adults and parents are much more aware of the dangers of drinking and driving.  Designated drivers are assigned or overnights arranged at friends’ houses keep kids safe after a night of drinking. Schools have also jumped on board, hosting alcohol free post-prom and graduation events.

It’s worked. Today, half as many people are dying in DWI/DUI crashes in Connecticut as 1984. MADD is proof that you can make inroads and save lives if you’re persistent.

MADD is proof that change is a slow process borne of years of conviction and dedication. It shows that change can happen if people make enough noise that lawmakers must listen.

It’s proof that if laws and attitudes about DWI can change, stricter laws can be adopted to prevent gun violence in schools. It won’t happen overnight, with one day of student walkouts or one national march. Like MADD, gun safety advocates must gear up for the long haul because changes take time, a very long time.

MADD started with one California woman, Candy Lightner, who took her devastation and anger over her daughter’s 1980 death in a DWI crash and sprung into action. Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter was walking to a church carnival when she was struck by a repeat DWI offender. Lightner committed herself to changing attitudes toward DWI, which she termed society’s only acceptable form of homicide. Today, MADD is among the largest non-profit advocacy groups in the nation.

Like Lightner, Janice Heggie Margolis unwittingly stumbled into her role as Connecticut chapter MADD president.

Eric Zimmerman was killed by a drunk driver in Milford, CT. I covered his court case, and interviewed his heart-broken mom.
While working in a hospital emergency room one night, a 4-year-old boy was rushed in and later declared dead after a DWI crash. The boy was standing on the passenger seat, and catapulted through the windshield on impact. Janice, a registered nurse, went to break the news to the driver: the boy’s father, who was too drunk to comprehend what he’d done.

“I had a baby at home so I had to do something,” she said.

Instead of a nursing career, she committed herself to MADD. She was still saving lives, but in a different way. She admits she was green when she started out. What did a nurse know about the court system? She credits court officials and judges with showing her the ropes.

Over the years, Janice, 66, has been a tireless victims rights advocate, appearing in court, working with families and lobbying for tougher DWI laws. She can take pride in her work, which has drastically cut the number of drunk driving deaths in Connecticut.

Janice attributes the reduction to public awareness, ride services like Uber, and interlocking devices requiring people who’ve been arrested for DWI to blow into them to start the ignition.

If you’re arrested for drunk driving, your car is equipped with an ignition interlock device requiring you to breathe into it to start it. You pay for the device, but like many things, people figure out ways to circumvent it. They have other people blow into it, or borrow cars without the device. Sadly, someone who wants to drive drunk can always find a way.

Though often feeling as though she taking three steps forward and two back, Janice said she’s seen progress since the late 80s. Between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2017, ignition interlock devices stopped 144,010 intoxicated drivers in Connecticut. That’s 144,000 times that people were too drunk to drive, and tried to do it anyway.

The number of drunk driving deaths is also dropping. In 1984, 252 people were killed in DWI crashes. In 2016, that number dropped to 100. But it’s a constant fight. And Janice points out that no devices prevent people from driving under the influence of drugs, another major road hazard.

One of the conference rooms at MADD headquarters in East Haven is filled with poster boards bearing the images of people killed in drunk driving crashes. I asked Janice how she handles sitting in the room. The images of smiling faces whose lives were tragically cut short is haunting. But Janice doesn’t see things that way.

“I see it as I’m having lunch all these people every day,” she said. “It’s an honor to sit in this room and honor their memory.”

Today, Janice is the oldest MADD president in the nation. But if you think 35 years is enough or she’s thinking about retirement, you’re wrong.

She’s made inroads, yes, but there’s so much more to be done. And as she’s proven, she’s in this for the long haul.

Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is blog editor for NOW-CT.


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