Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies as the result of impaired driving, both alcohol and drug impairment. There 290,000 injuries from impaired-driving crashes in 2016 alone.
Impaired driving also accounts for 26 percent of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. each year, and it’s estimated that the average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before being arrested for the first time.
As staggering as the statistics are, it is the stories of human heartbreak behind them that bring the problem into focus.
At a kickoff for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Tie One On For Safety campaign on Monday, Nov. 13, Leann Lewis shared her own heartbreak and how her and her family’s lives were changed forever by a drunk driver.
Lewis received a late-night phone call in September 2008 and was told her father has been severely injured in a car accident. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her father had passed.
She and her family soon learned that the person who crossed the center line and hit her father was drunk.
“I miss my dad,” said Lewis, the current leader of the MADD Heartland Chapter. “My dad was an awesome dad. He was a sod farmer, a veteran, and my biggest fan. Our family holidays and traditions are not the same anymore. My dad would fix our Thanksgiving turkey and cook it upside down, claiming it made the turkey taste better.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I dearly miss talking to him and watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with him. I miss sitting down at the table with him to eat our Thanksgiving meal. I really, really miss him. My dad’s life was taken because of a choice someone else made to drink and drive impaired.”
The Tie One On For Safety campaign is MADD’s longest-running and most-visible public awareness project. The goal of the campaign, which is celebrating its 31st year, is not only to raise awareness but to also reduce the number of injuries and deaths cause by impaired drivers.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of drunk-driving deaths in the U.S. has decreased significantly since MADD was founded in 1980.
During the campaign, which begins each year before Thanksgiving, MADD volunteers ask drivers in the community to display red MADD ribbons in or on their vehicles. The ribbons symbolize a pledge not to drive impaired and, instead, opt for one of the many other choices in the quest to arrive safely home.
“Judgment is a big part of the problem,” said Major Greg Smith, Missouri State Highway Patrol. “People continue to drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs because they have a false sense of security and think they are OK.”
Bill Whitfield, Director of Safety for the Missouri Department of Transportation, agreed. “People don’t plan ahead. After they’ve been drinking, they realize they still have to get home but the first thing that goes after you’ve been drinking is your judgment. People lull themselves into thinking they are impervious and can make it home.”
Thanksgiving and Christmas is a critical time, according to MADD, because impaired-driving accidents and fatalities increase during the holidays. That’s because so many holiday activities and events include drinking coupled with the fact there are record numbers of people traveling and on roads.
“Every year, thousands of innocent people are killed or injured by impaired drivers,” Whitfield said. “Tie One On For Safety and these red ribbons remind individuals that driving impaired is a choice they make. Each crash, each injury, and each death is 100 percent preventable. Driving demands 100 percent of our attention and there are many options to driving impaired. Designate a driver, call a cab, Uber, or Lyft, or take public transportation.”
Members from multiple law enforcement agencies — including the Missouri State Highway Patrol; the Jackson, Platte, and Cass County Sheriff’s Offices; and several other municipal police departments, including Kansas City, Independence, Blue Springs, and Belton — were represented at the kickoff event.
There also were corporate partners, including Uber Manager of Public Policy, Road and Traffic Safety Nadia Anderson, who spoke about her company’s initiatives to prevent impaired driving.
“We are partners with MADD in asking everyone to pledge not to drive drunk,” Anderson said. “We have awareness campaigns about impaired driving. We also offer discounts and free rides to impaired drivers.”
Driving is a huge responsibility and we are responsible for ourselves and everyone around us. It is one of the biggest responsibilities we have, Smith observed.
After the press conference at the Silverstein Ice Centers Arena in Independence, Lewis along with other members of MADD and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, visited a number of area law firms, insurance companies, and other businesses to distribute the red pledge ribbons.
“We distributed nearly all 20,000 ribbons today and we need to order more,” Lewis said. “We’re going to keep working hard and getting the word out. The greatest gift we can ever give is for everyone to arrive home safely.”