Outrage Over Drunk Driving
updated 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
As Bryan Poole's eloquent memorial suggests, America is no longer ignoring or forgetting the victims of drunk drivers. After a decade in which intoxicated motorists injured some 10 million persons and killed an average of 70 people a day, a grass-roots movement has arisen across the nation to demand an end to the highway carnage. It is a movement composed of people like Bryan Poole—the relatives and friends of the victims of drunk drivers. Organized in the last few years into powerful activist organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (181 chapters in 39 states) and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (134 chapters in 31 states), they have lobbied for tougher legislation, monitored traffic courts, and used the media to revolutionize public perception of drinking and driving. "Somehow citizen activists have struck a public nerve," says Robert Reeder, general counsel of Northwestern University's Traffic Institute. "The movement will not go away very quickly. The people who form the backbone of these groups have deep reasons for being a member."
These organizations have struggled to overcome what District of Columbia activist Jerry Sachs wryly terms "an entrenched American stereotype—the cool guy cruising along, beer in one hand, other hand on the wheel and his third hand around the girl." Absurd as it is, that attitude in many states remains entrenched in law. In states like Texas, Nevada and Kentucky, slackly written drunk-driving statutes are riddled with loopholes, making prosecution difficult. Drunk drivers sometimes escape penalty by refusing breath alcohol tests. Without the test results, police are often unable to prove drunkenness, allowing the driver to plea-bargain for a lesser charge. Across the country there are convicted drunk drivers—some who have killed people in accidents—who serve no prison terms and retain their driver's licenses.
But after more than three years of hard-nosed lobbying by organizations like MADD and RID, that situation is changing. Since 1980 virtually every state has toughened its laws on drinking and driving. Thirty-five states now define drunkenness by a specific level of blood alcohol—usually .1 percent—and nationwide there is a trend to stiffen the penalty for refusing breath alcohol tests. In 17 states drunk drivers now automatically lose their licenses for a first offense, and in many states they may face jail terms. These new laws already have saved lives. Highway fatalities—more than half of which are alcohol-related—dropped from 49,000 in 1981 to under 44,000 in 1982 and are running nearly 4 percent lower in 1983. "Deaths have gone down from the new stiffer laws, no doubt about it," says a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The revolution is far from over. MADD now wants to strengthen the web of state laws and is lobbying for a legal drinking age of 21 across the country. In the following pages, PEOPLE examines the human toll of drunk driving—accidents that more and more people view as crimes.
Meanwhile Bryan Poole makes a weekly visit to the white cross he planted along a Houston highway. He swabs the grit from the brass plaque and sweeps up the trash that accumulates around the cross. He does not remove the shattered windshield glass of his son's car. He leaves that where it lies, against the curb where Larry died.
The terrible toll on the road-five case studies
Slaughter at 100 mph in L.A.
Racing along an L.A. freeway at 100 mph at 2:25 a.m. on June 4, the Mercedes 450 SEL sedan driven by former model Phyllis Hall, 26, spun out of control over the median divider, leapt through the air, and slammed into an approaching Chevrolet (see photo of wreckage, p. 18). In just seconds four of the six young people in the Chevy were dead, and another died in the hospital. (One victim, Karin Paige, 19, is pictured.) The slightly injured Hall, whose blood alcohol level was a phenomenally high .25, had a previous drunk-driving conviction (she was given one year's probation and a suspended fine) and was driving her boyfriend's car with an expired registration. (Police say the other driver was also intoxicated.) Hall was charged with five counts of second-degree murder and bail was set at $250,000. "There's a hue and cry after her like a fox and hounds," says her attorney. "It's her first time in prison, and she's terrified." But public opinion is not sympathetic to Hall, who faces a maximum of 15 years to life if convicted. On the day of her bond hearing, another offender became the first drunk driver to be convicted of murder in L.A. County.
A wedding eve tragedy in Pennsylvania
For Pennsylvania scholar-athlete Ed Hartman Jr., 22 (right), the night of May 27 was a time of exhilarating satisfaction and anticipation. Two weeks earlier he had graduated from Pennsylvania's evangelical Geneva College, after earning a Division II, NAIA All-America honorable mention at quarterback his junior year. The next morning he was to marry his high school sweetheart, Marybeth Diamond, a pretty graduate of Butler County Community College. That night, after an emotional wedding rehearsal dinner, Ed Hartman and five buddies—four of whom were devout Christian nondrinkers—piled into a car and headed for Pittsburgh. "We just wanted to get Eddie away from Marybeth one last time," one explained. Twenty minutes later, they were struck head-on by an auto traveling in the wrong lane on Route 28 in Etna, Pa. Eddie and one friend were killed. The other driver, unemployed boilermaker Lawrence Rodgers, 43, had been angry about his failing marriage, according to his wife, a passenger who was injured in the crash. She said Rodgers downed 15 to 22 shots of whiskey (his blood alcohol level registered a staggering .27), then sped into oncoming traffic in an attempt to kill both her and himself. "I heard the phone ring and didn't think anything of it," recalls Marybeth of the tragedy. "Then I could hear people crying downstairs. Everyone was shaking and their faces were white. My mind thought, 'What is the worst thing that could ever happen to me?' Then I knew—The terrible thing is that Eddie never had a drink in his life," she says. "He was so opposed to it—and he was killed by a drunk driver." The slightly injured Rodgers is now in county jail awaiting trial on two counts of first-degree murder and a raft of other charges.
A needless death in San Jose
With eight convictions since 1978 for driving under the influence (DUI) and a history of drug abuse, San Jose computer repairman Abel Esparza, 30 (above), was a disaster waiting to happen. "We did everything we could to keep him off the road," says his brother, Marco, 20, who often shuttled Abel to and from dates and jobs. But early on the afternoon of June 6, Esparza—whose license had been suspended for years—got the keys to his brother's 1979 Mustang from a friend. Five miles down the road his car grazed bicyclist Connie Crook, 25 (causing massive multiple contusions from which she is still recovering), then plowed into her bicycling fireman husband, Kevin. The car carried him 300 feet, killing him. Esparza, who had been drinking and was high on PCP (angel dust), was charged with vehicular manslaughter and two counts of felony DUI. "We asked the police several times before the crash to take Abel to the hospital," says Marco. "This didn't need to happen." Abel, who is in jail in lieu of $500,000 bail, faces a five-year prison term if convicted—faint solace for Kevin Crook's angry and grieving kin. Says Clay Gregory, Connie's brother-in-law and legal counsel: "The irony is that Kevin's job as a fireman-paramedic was scraping people off the streets. This incident has all the qualities of a random murder."
A bicyclist's killer is still on the road
Things were going well for Kathy Newland (below): At 19, she had moved to Arlington, Texas from her small Missouri hometown and found a fiancé, good friends and a job at a cafeteria. Then, as she bicycled to work on May 19, 1982, Kathy was struck from behind and thrown 232 feet by a van that veered onto the shoulder of the road. Despite the frantic efforts of paramedics, she died of massive neck and spinal injuries. The driver of the van, Patricia Ann Sanders, 22, was charged on arrest with driving while intoxicated (her breath alcohol test registered .26), marijuana and amphetamine possession, and involuntary manslaughter. Despite 16 entries on her driving record over the previous five years—including five accidents—Sanders was released on $3,000 bond within 24 hours of the collision. Pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter last March 25, she was sentenced to five years' probation and a $1,500 fine. District Judge Don Leonard has defended the leniency of the sentence. "Sanders is what you consider a minor violator," he told a local newspaper. "It was just teenage stuff." Patricia Ann Sanders did not show up at a hearing on her license revocation and may be legally driving in Texas.
A verdict divides a Texas town
Charges of ethnic prejudice have fueled the New Braunfels, Texas furor over William Savage (above), a 23-year-old Army private who mowed down four members of a poor Mexican family last October. Returning to base after a night of partying, Savage said he "felt a bump" and noticed the windshield had shattered. He stopped the car and walked back, coming upon the broken bodies of laborer Ruben Sauceda, 26, his common-law wife, Hortencia, and their two children, ages 1 and 2, whom his 1970 VW had struck as they walked along the highway. A blood alcohol test revealed that Savage's alcohol level was .226—more than twice the legal limit. Nevertheless, at his trial for one count of manslaughter, the jury of 11 Anglos and one Hispanic decided against a jail term, imposing only a $5,000 fine and 10 years' probation. Hispanic leaders were outraged. "We were repulsed that a man could kill a family of four and get away with probation," says Austin lawyer Mack Martinez, an attorney for the Committee for Justice for All, which picketed the New Braunfels courthouse until Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox announced on May 16 that he would review the case. He has said that Savage also would be tried on manslaughter charges in the deaths of the other three family members. DA Bill Schroeder, who prosecuted Savage (now back at Fort Sam Houston), has little sympathy for the anti-Savage movement. "The jury didn't see brown, they didn't see white," he says. "They saw a young soldier who had never had a problem in his life." Counters Committee for Justice attorney Ruben Sandoval: "The Sauceda case is an embarrassment to the national movement to get drunk drivers off the streets."
Where two states meet, a bloody weekend ritual
At 1:30 a.m. the rock music is still blaring, the beer still flowing at the Bullpen Bar, a raucous roadhouse on Route 32 in Wisconsin, just a hundred yards from the Illinois border. A dozen teenagers spill groggily out the door and into their cars in the massive parking lot, screeching off into the darkness toward their suburban Chicago homes 30 or 40 miles away. As countless other bars in the border area empty out, hundreds more drink-impaired young drivers barrel off in the same direction, some carrying maps provided by bar-keeps to guide them over back roads infrequently patrolled by police.
The reckless border migration has become a weekend ritual for thousands of teenagers in the three and a half years since Illinois raised the drinking age from 19 to 21. Eleven other states followed suit in raising the threshold age for legal drinking, thereby helping to reduce the disproportionate number of teenage deaths on America's highways. (Although teens make up only 8 percent of the population and drive only 6 percent of the highway miles, they are involved in 15 percent of the fatal crashes. Fourteen of them die each day in alcohol-related accidents.) But Wisconsin has stubbornly resisted the trend, making it one of four states (with Hawaii, Vermont and Louisiana) that allow 18-year-olds to purchase hard liquor. The resulting phenomenon—familiar to many who reside in the border areas of adjoining states with disparate minimum drinking ages—has been the creation of an appalling highway hazard. Border-side bars and night spots have sprung up, luring teenagers across state lines on journeys that too often end in drunk-driving tragedies.
Despite a 28 percent decrease in highway deaths among 18-to-20-year-olds in Illinois since the new law took effect, drunk-driving deaths are up 10 percent in two Illinois counties adjacent to Wisconsin, saddling the state line with a grim nickname, "Blood Border." "We are aware of the death toll," said one 19-year-old as she sat in her car outside the Bullpen Bar. "We make nervous jokes at night: 'Be careful crossing the Bloodline.' "
Illinois police have watched the grisly events at Blood Border with mounting concern. "The figures are staggering," says Antioch Police Chief Charles Miller, whose town sits on the line. "Six years ago we arrested 17 drunk drivers a year. This year we have had 159 arrests since Jan. 1." The Illinois state police, who made a record 1,718 drunk-driving arrests last year on a single 37-mile stretch of the I-94 toll road south of the border, now station troopers at toll plazas to arrest anyone driving with open liquor bottles or beer cans. Assisting state and local police is a citizens' patrol called Extra Eyes, whose members cruise the area in CB-equipped cars, tracking down drunks. "There's a rolling bar on that highway," warns Extra Eyes patroller Lou Greenwald. The group was organized last year by the Illinois-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM), whose co-founder, editor Carol Brierly Golin, 54, has a poignant interest in keeping the Wisconsin-Illinois state line as bloodless as possible. Two summers ago her daughter, Ann Brierly, and a girlfriend were killed 11 days after Ann's high school graduation by a drunk driver who broadsided their pickup at an Antioch intersection. "If I had any idea what kind of traffic jungle it was up there," says Golin, who lives in Glencoe, Ill., "I would never have let her go. From our experience working with the state police at spotting drunk drivers, we think that close to one in four drivers is intoxicated. Inexperienced teenagers," she adds, "are the most vulnerable." Ann's killer, a 19-year-old sailor named Rodney Lackie, stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago, was on his way back to base after a day spent dropping acid and a night of drinking beer with a buddy at a Wisconsin bar. "If there had been a 21-year-old drinking age," says Golin, "Rodney could not have had any liquor in Wisconsin. Nor could he have gotten drunk and killed Ann."
Golin says she has no hatred for her daughter's killer, who was released from prison in June after serving one year for reckless homicide. Rather, her bitterness is directed toward those on the Wisconsin border who earn their livelihoods selling liquor to Illinois youths. "A bartender or bar owner who serves teenagers too much beer when he knows they have to drive 50 or 60 miles home at night is taking blood money," she declares. "I don't know how that kind of person sleeps at night."
Tragic aftermath of a fatal crash
Kevin Tunell was drunk. It was New Year's Eve, 1981. Champagne was flowing freely and Tunell was feeling good—a little too good to drive, it seemed to the guests at the second party he attended that night in northern Virginia. When Tunell, then 17, left to take his girlfriend home, friends begged him to surrender his car keys and accept a ride. He shrugged off the suggestion and roared into the night. At about 1:15, a few minutes after he dropped off his girlfriend, Tunell's silver Dodge station wagon swerved across the dividing line of Commonwealth Boulevard in Fairfax County at more than 50 mph, smacking into an oncoming Volkswagen. Kevin Tunell doesn't remember the accident, only his later interrogation at the police station.
Thirty minutes after the crash the phone rang in the home of Lou and Patty Herzog less than a mile away. A friend's report of the collision drew the couple to the accident site. There, in the stark illumination of highway flares and flashing red lights, they saw the shattered car of their 18-year-old daughter, Susan. Fearfully, Patty Herzog, 49, approached a policeman.
"Was it Susan?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"Is she dead?"
The accident that caused Susan Herzog's death has permanently altered the lives of her parents and her killer. Both Kevin Tunell and the Herzogs have thrown their energies into the growing crusade against drunk driving. Lou, a 50-year-old retired Navy officer, and Patty Herzog joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving; Patty, vice-president of the local chapter, attends traffic court every Thursday to encourage local judges to crack down on drunks. Kevin Tunell has lectured against drunk driving almost full-time for the past 16 months, appearing in scores of high schools and on several TV and radio shows. But the common goal shared by these three activists has not eradicated the emotional wounds caused by the accident. A bitterness—even a hatred—festers between the Herzogs and Kevin Tunell.
It began at Tunell's trial for manslaughter in February 1982. The Herzogs asked Juvenile Court Judge Michael J. Valentine to give Tunell the maximum sentence—a year in jail. "We felt that a jail sentence was the least that Kevin should get," says Patty. Tunell had another idea: After pleading guilty, he told the judge that he wanted to speak to other teens about the dangers of drinking and driving. "There is no way I can change what I did that night," he says, "but I can try to change what other teenagers do behind the wheel."
Judge Valentine agreed. He stripped Tunell of his driver's license, placed him on probation until his 21st birthday, and sentenced him to lecture against drunk driving 40 hours a week for a year. The Herzogs were livid. "It was a travesty of justice," says Patty. "This is a trivial sentence."
Last spring the Herzogs initiated a civil suit against Tunell. In an out-of-court settlement, they received $100,000 from his insurance company—and a written promise that he will send them a dollar every Friday night for the next 18 years. "We told Kevin," Patty explains, "that the dollar-a-week assignment is so he will remember at least once a week when he writes Susan's name that he killed her."
Tunell has not forgotten. As Judge Valentine mandated, he spent a year lecturing against drunk driving at high schools across Virginia. When the year ended, Kevin continued speaking. Before taking a temporary break this summer to attend courses at Long-wood College in southern Virginia, Tunell had delivered more than 500 lectures.
But the Herzogs are not impressed. They have seen Tunell lecture, heard him on the radio, and watched him on television, and now the simple sight of him fills them with fury. "He should have given his year of service and then shut up," says Patty. Adds Lou: "This sentence has just made a celebrity out of him. I've always thought that it would have been much more impressive if, at the end of his presentation, a police officer walked out and said, 'Okay, Kevin, it's time to go back to jail!' "
The Herzogs' anger affects Tunell. "I can understand where they are coming from," he says, "but from my own experience, I think my sentence was more constructive than going to jail." Still, he has moments—even days—of distress. He feels haunted by his image as the "killer speaker" and wonders if his obsessive lecturing has done any good. Even now, 19 months after the accident, nightmares of car wrecks shatter his sleep. And not a day has passed, he says, when he hasn't thought about the crash. "I've never forgiven myself for what happened," he says. "It was so stupid, so dumb. If I have a daughter who gets to be 18, probably on that 18th birthday I'll have a hard time. Every New Year's Eve, when everybody else is singing Auld Lang Syne, I'll remember what went on."