Victim Impact Panel Designed to Stop Drunk Driving

By: Amy Bingham
By: Amy Bingham

Making the decision to drive while impaired is a huge gamble that could cost you your job, your freedom and even your life, or the life of an innocent victim.

Victim advocates say law enforcement is one of the biggest allies in the fight against drunk driving.

Bowling Green Police Officer Josh Hughes has been singled out twice by his department and twice by the state for his high number of drunk-driving arrests.

He says a teen's fatal accident early in his career had a big impact on him. "This one I just thought, man if I had been behind him and made a stop he might still be alive today,” he says.

While it's up to law enforcement to make the arrest, it's up to the court system to decide the punishment.

One thing all offenders are court-ordered to do is attend a victim impact panel, which is a session where they are forced to see and hear the gory details of previous drunk driving crashes.

When Amy Gardner recounts the tragic crash that claimed the life of her son Lee in 1999, she doesn't hold back.

She even passes around a photo of her 6-year-old pinned under his father's truck in an impaired driving crash. "You get some that can't handle it, they leave crying,” she says. “Their reaction is how sorry they are, hug you, then you know you've reached somebody.”

These are sobering messages and it's not easy for victims to relive the pain. However, they do because they know their stories could save someone's life.

Jenni Hughes lost her sister, Danielle in a drunk-driving crash seven years ago. She says, "I come here and I speak to people who have DUIs that have been in the place where the man who killed my sister has been, in hopes one person will listen.”

She and her mother say making an impact on offenders is all that's left for them to do for Danielle. "We can't do anything else for her. I can't ever see her babies or her wedding, but I can do this for her and that's what we try to do,” Jenni says.

Robin Mohan is a victim advocate with Mothers against Drunk Driving, which is the agency that organizes the victim impact panel each month. "The greatest achievement I think we've had is we've put a face on the victims and showed who these people are, [they are] not a statistic, [but] a daughter, husband, son, neighbor,” she says.

Mohan says hearing stories about these people whose lives were cut short by drunk driving is a harsh wake-up call to offenders who could have easily been the person who causing the pain.

"What we're saying is you made a bad choice and this is what happens when people make bad choices. So next time, make a different choice,” explains Robin of the program.

After attending one of the sessions, the DUI offender must take a certificate back to the judge as proof.

While no one knows whether or not the disturbing stories will stay with them, the victims say the message is too important to keep to themselves.

“There are still too many people being hurt, too many people being killed, too many families being lost like we are,” says Robin.

Mothers against Drunk Driving is a grass roots organization started in California in 1980 by Candy Lightner, a woman whose 13-year-old daughter was killed by a repeat offender.

Twenty six years later the group is still going strong, constantly striving to clear up some misconceptions.

One: they are more than just mothers; they are fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.

Two: drivers are not just drunk; they are often impaired by drugs.

And three: MADD says there is no such thing as a drunk-driving accident. They prefer the term crash because they say choosing to drink and drive is no accident.

MADD was instrumental in having the legal drinking age increased from 18 to 21, as well as in lowering the legal alcohol limit from .10 to .08.

Learn more about Mothers against Drunk Driving visit their website at www.madd.org


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