By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Though her enthusiastic manner does not suggest it, Margaret Collins, when pressed, admits to a growing frustration. Still, as she sits in her Stemmons high-rise office, the executive director of the Dallas-area chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) dutifully goes about her passion, ticking off her statistical talking points: The numbers, provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, she says, show that in 2001 Texas had 1,789 killed in drunken driving-related incidents, 400 more than second-place California. Last year the fatality rate remained staggering: 1,745.
But, she candidly admits, there are now times when she wonders if people really care that they're living in the deadliest drunken driving state in the United States. "From my perspective," she says, "the general public has become desensitized to the issue. Today, it takes something like a bus crash with 20 fatalities to even get people's attention."
Or the recent high-profile case in which 20-year-old Bennigan's waitress Jennifer Sanchez was run over and killed by a carload of drunken teens who had walked out on their bill. "These days," Collins says, reflecting on the recent trial of driver Sarah Foust, "we don't have many cases where a drunk driver is sent to prison for murder." Example: Damien Brock, a 23-year-old Arlington man, was given a 10-year probated sentence when found guilty last month of intoxication manslaughter after his best friend was killed in a drunken driving accident last fall in Mansfield.
Collins, pointing out that alcohol-related traffic deaths have been on the increase over the past three years, is waving no flag of surrender. Instead, she and her 20-year-old organization have found it necessary to adopt a revised philosophy, institute new programs, lobby for pre-emptive legislation and strike up a new slogan--"Get MADD All Over Again"--that smacks of a return to the group's more shrill and angry days.
Not so, Collins insists. "For some," she says, "there's still the image that we're an activist group of little old ladies in hiking boots, screaming at the top of our voices and waving signs in front of the courthouse. There are those who continue to have the misconception that we're against anyone drinking and that we have a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude toward everyone caught driving under the influence. That's not at all what we're about."
Today, she says, the focus of MADD's mission, though no less determined, has become subtler, more soft-spoken. While still lobbying for stiffer laws, the nationwide organization's present-day priority is to serve as an advocate for injured survivors or families of victims, and to better educate the nation's youths on the dangers associated with drinking.
That is not to say there are no more controversial battlegrounds.
In recent years, the organization has unsuccessfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to re-institute the procedure of sobriety checkpoints at which random drivers are subjected to tests to make sure their blood alcohol count is not 0.08 or more. "It is constitutionally allowed," Collins argues, "and, in fact, Texas used to do it." Modern-day opponents, however, express concerns that MADD is not only advocating an invasion of privacy but drifting back to the days of prohibition, attacking the responsible drinker.
Dallas state Representative Yvonne Davis voted against the idea, voicing worries that racial profiling might become part of the procedure. Hers was one of the votes in a 4-3 decision that recently killed the proposed legislation in committee.
Davis did not return calls from the Dallas Observer.
"I fully understand and respect the privacy issues involved," says Euless Representative Todd Smith, House sponsor of the failed bill, "but I believe if a community has a severe [drunk driving] problem, the Legislature should not, by its failure, prohibit it from dealing with it in a constitutionally approved manner."
He points out that his bill offers the necessary provisions that would make certain that rules are in place to prevent any abuse of power by law enforcement agencies conducting the checks. Among those provisions are that the time and location of the checkpoints are publicized in advance and that the checks will not discriminate. "The problem we have here," he says, "is that there are no written guidelines for such a procedure."
Thus, Bill Lewis, a volunteer lobbyist for MADD for 10 years, says he'll continue to push for the legislation. "We've reached a point where the Legislature is willing to come down pretty harshly after something bad happens," says the publisher of the Keller Citizen whose daughter spent a year hospitalized after being struck by a drunken driver in 1989. "That's certainly progress. Now, though, we'd love to see them move from the reactive to the proactive."
Texas, he notes, allowed random checkpoint stops until a court ruling following an arrest made by police in Arlington was contested. It was determined that the DWI charge that followed was without legal merit. The courts ruled that the stop was unconstitutional since the officer had made it with "no reasonable expectation" the driver had committed any crime. And, despite the fact the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on a similar case, ultimately held that the random stops were reasonable, they haven't been used by Texas law enforcement since the early '90s.