McCallum: DUI Impact

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(HOST)  When Vermont passed legislation last week that strengthens penalties for DUI, commentator Mary McCallum was reminded of a class that helped her to understand the plight of those who become victims because of poor decisions made by some Vermont drivers.

(MCCALLUM) I sat in a room with twenty strangers whose diversity was striking.  They came from all walks of life, ranged in age from early twenties to mid-sixties, yet shared one thing in common.  Each had lost their driver’s license on the charge of Driving Under the Influence or Careless and Negligent Operation of a vehicle.

I was there to observe and learn about the DUI Impact Program, coordinated by the Vermont Department of Corrections.  It teaches offenders about how their choice to drive while impaired affects their families, employers, community and, most of all, their victims.  No one in the room had taken a life because of their actions, but the skilled facilitators shared many stories of the tragic carnage on Vermont’s roads resulting from DUI.

In 2005 there were twenty-seven deaths statewide resulting from drivers with a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher.  Three years later there were just ten. Fatalities declined every year until 2010, when the number again began to climb.

The DUI Impact Program facilitators led our group in a variety of activities that drove home the word impact.  In one, participants listed all financial costs that resulted from their drunk driving violation.

Heads bent to paper, they recorded dollars spent on towing, vehicle storage, car replacement, lost work time, lawsuits, medical expenses, insurance hikes, fines, court costs, and defense attorneys.  One woman had used half her retirement fund to meet expenses, while others carried loans that paid their lawyers.

The real price was unveiled the second night, when victims of collisions visited the class to tell their stories.  One had driven drunk and without a license most of his adult life until he himself was the victim of a hit-and-run by an inebriated driver.  His life, his mind and his body haven’t been the same since.

Then sheets of fresh, white paper were passed around.  We were told to crumple them into tight balls, then unfold and flatten them.  No matter how diligently we worked, no one could make their paper look the same as it had before.  And that is what happens when any of us are the victim of a bad accident – we may go on, but we’ve got some cracks and are never quite the same.

One third of all deadly crashes in Vermont involve alcohol.  On average, someone in the United States is killed by a drunk driver every forty-five minutes.  Last December, Kaye Borneman was mowed down in Burlington by a four-time convicted drunk driver.  The tragedy prompted Vermont lawmakers to reintroduce Nick’s Law, named after 18 year-old Nick Fournier who died in 2007 when hit by a repeat offender

The bill won final approval on the last day of the 2011 legislative session.  It will stiffen penalties for driving while intoxicated and hopefully save lives.  And reducing the number of DUI victims may be the best way to honor the lives lost because of the lethal cocktail of drinking and driving.

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