On any given weekend in the College Area, police officers can be spotted busting up raucous parties. (Remember those days? Yeah--good times.) I've watched from my front porch as kids stream from the houses like clowns from a Gremlin, noisily flood the streets, climb into their cars and peel into the night. While I'm always thankful that quiet is about to be restored to my little sliver of the community, I wonder--every single time I hear rubber squeal against pavement--how many of them are driving drunk as they speed toward their next beer bong.
According to Pat Hodgkin, executive director of the San Diego chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), approximately 17,000 people are killed each year in the U.S. as the result of drunken-driving crashes. In San Diego County, roughly two people die each week.
Last November, Mesa College student Whitney Young became one of those sad statistics. Young, 19, was struck by a car, driven by a man just one year older than she was at the time, while crossing Montezuma Boulevard near San Diego State. The drunken driver who hit her, Eric Joseph Leeman, fled the scene. When apprehended four days later--the same day Young died from the injuries sustained in the late-night hit-and-run--he claimed he thought he'd struck an animal.
This crash happened only four blocks from my home while my family and I slept. I drive daily over the exact spot where this woman was hit and fatally injured by a drunken kid not of legal drinking age. As a parent who will one day send her child into the world on her own, I've been haunted by this story. It brought me a keen awareness of how she could so easily be the one killed by a drunken driver and, only slightly less atrocious, how she could just as easily be the one to go to jail. Last week, Leeman was sentenced to 11 years in state prison.
'We're grateful to the judge,' Ms. Hodgkin offered carefully when I asked whether MADD considered the sentence appropriate, an acknowledgment that the judge could have opted for a lighter sentence due to a plea bargain. But she immediately followed with a valid, if rhetorical, question: 'How much time is a life worth?'
This story is a tragedy in so many directions. Two families are devastated by a terrible choice made by one person. Two families are ruined forever by loss so painful and reverberating that I cannot begin to comprehend it. But I have to admit that, as the story originally unfolded, I felt some compassion for Leeman. I couldn't see how sending him to prison with violent criminals was going to make things better. (It should be noted that MADD views drunken-driving crashes as violent crimes.)
The way I saw it, this guy would spend many years cautiously bending over for the soap, and it wasn't going to change the fact that a young girl was dead because of him. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to society, I thought, for him to permanently lose his driver's license, to go through alcohol treatment, to forever be adorned with an oh-so-fashionable alcohol-monitoring bracelet and to do thousands of hours of community service? Some jail time would be necessary, of course, but wouldn't a greater purpose be met if he were to serve a life sentence touring the country, speaking publicly before auditoriums filled with high-school and college students who will some day find themselves in the position of choosing whether to get behind the wheel after drinking?
Now, I'm not going to say we've all done it, because someone somewhere will write to say that they've never done it. But the truth is that most of us--me included--have driven while intoxicated. I'm not proud to say that, but it's honest. I'm just lucky that I never killed anyone nor harmed myself and that I realized a long time ago that driving after drinking is simply not an option. Some people, however, never seem to learn this, and Mr. Leeman is one of those people.
It turns out he had a prior DUI at the age of 17, and this is about where my thinking on the issue changes. Clearly, his first infraction didn't impact him in any meaningful way since he's a repeat offender (and how many times he re-offended without getting caught before the tragic events of Nov. 12 is anyone's guess). Given this horrifying detail, I concede that there is zero debate about prison time. He must be accountable and stand as an example for other people to recognize without any confusion.
What this particular story has elicited in me is a broader question of exactly what punishment for first offenders is harsh enough to both prevent recidivism and deter non-offenders? Everybody knows that drinking and driving is 'wrong' and 'bad' and 'dangerous,' not to mention illegal. MADD has been extremely effective in getting this message out. And yet, many otherwise good people choose to do it; amazing and incredibly smart people whom I love and admire do it. So how is it that the message from organizations like MADD does not compute?
On Oct. 13 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, MADD will sponsor Strides for Change, a 5-kilometer walk aimed at raising awareness and raising funds for services (www.madd sandiego.org has more information). Along with providing support to victims of this violent crime--including the families of the drunken drivers themselves--and preventing underage drinking, the group's mission statement cites its intention to eradicate drunken driving. 'We hope to make drunk driving the public-health equivalent of polio,' Hodgkin told me. 'I'm going to put myself out of a job.'
This is a lofty goal, and I'm all for it. But it seems a little like abstinence-only education: Teach one way as the only one way and leave people lacking the tools with which to make informed decisions. People are going to drink alcohol, including people younger than 21. We already have laws to prevent this and still it continues.
I applaud MADD for its work and in no way wish to criticize its members too harshly. But perhaps the organization needs to take a closer look at what isn't working and re-vamp its continuing outreach to include teaching responsible drinking and decision-making. Then maybe more people--including the co-ed woo-hooers in my community--will avoid the tragic fates of Whitney Young and Eric Leeman.