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.
"At the same time," Lewis notes, "there are 39 states that still take advantage of the checkpoint stops."
Critics, meanwhile, charge that MADD, having successfully fought battles to have the limit on blood alcohol content lowered and gotten a law passed banning open alcohol containers in vehicles, is now targeting the legal drinker. Others warn that drivers' rights will be violated.
"At the same time," he adds, "we must realize the importance of liberty and privacy. Texans like their freedom, and the idea of sobriety checkpoints offers too great a chance for a person's 14th Amendment right to be violated." Colosi also expresses concern for the possible discrimination of minorities that might result from such stops. "This is a law," he says, "that allows the police to stop all of us and look into our cars. We are, in effect, being asked to give up our privacy. Historically, that is not the way our society has worked."
"We're not on a campaign to intrude on people's privacy, nor are we against social drinking," Collins responds. "We're only concerned with that driver who is intoxicated. This would be nothing but another way to assure the sober drivers that their streets and highways are safe." She and Lewis both cite the Supreme Court's ruling as evidence that such a measure would neither ignore drivers' rights nor make them a profiling target.
While that uphill battle continues, MADD is quietly fighting on new fronts. "Our top priority today," Collins says, "is being an advocate for the victims of drunk driving accidents. We want to help the injured survivors and families of victims through their difficulties and do everything we can to help make them aware of their rights and recourses." She or a member of her seven-person staff routinely accompanies families to trials, offering a compassionate ear and advising them of the troubling twists and turns of the legal process.
Today, in an effort to better reach the growing Hispanic population in the 11-county region served by the Irving and Fort Worth offices, two members of Collins' staff are fluent in Spanish.
When Adelita Avila's son was just 4, he was hit by a drunken driver, suffering a ruptured colon and brain injury. He lay in a coma for three weeks before his slow recovery began. "The woman who hit him," Avila says, "was ultimately charged with not stopping to render aid and received five years' probation. I just couldn't understand how someone could walk away from something like that so easily."
It is a situation for which the eight-year MADD employee repeatedly tries to prepare victims she now counsels. "The most frustrating part of my job," she admits, "is trying to explain to a family how the person who has caused them so much grief will likely make some kind of plea agreement for a light sentence."
And while Avila focuses much of her attention on minority victims, co-worker Velisa Mitchell has been overseeing the organization's fast-growing youth programs for the past three years. With funding provided by the Texas Department of Transportation, Mitchell makes presentations to high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools in an effort to avoid a new generation of intoxicated drivers. "We talk with them about everything from delaying experimenting with alcohol until they become adults to having them hear the stories of victims of drunk driving accidents," she says. "We feel it is extremely important that we grab the attention of these kids early."
Collins agrees. "Research has shown that the average age at which a person first has a full can or glass of beer--not just a sip--is 12." She admits that MADD's urging that alcohol consumption be put off until age 21 is "radical," but quickly points out that if it could be accomplished, it would reduce drinking-related accidents by 75 percent.
Meanwhile, she acknowledges, the public attitude drifts along its seemingly complacent course. And, as the statistics she can recite from memory seem too often to fall on deaf ears, she continues to deliver them: "The 9/11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center," she says, "was one of the most horrible tragedies in American history. Over 3,000 people were killed." She pauses briefly for effect. "Meanwhile, over six times that many die in alcohol-related driving deaths in the United States every year."
Despite the frustration generated by that grim picture, Collins and MADD continue preaching such statistics. "We're not going away," she says.