The gut-wrenching stories of dead children and mutilated bodies made the Virginia T senators uncomfortable. They tried to look stoic when the teary-eyed fathers and sisters approached the podium clutching pictures of family members who had been killed. They squirmed in their seats when the living victim, a crippled teen-ager, hobbled unsteadily to the front of the hearing room.
The proposals were straightforward enough: Toughen drunk driving laws and penalties. But the senators weren't used to this sort of lobbying. These lobbyists came with more than stacks of statistics and figures. They came with tears and emotion and tales of human tragedy.
Some of them also came prepared to lose, even the most idealistic ones--the youngest ones.
The mood in the van of Fairfax County high school student leaders was one of cautious optimism. Most of them were making their first foray into politics, fresh from the civics book simplicity of the high school classroom into the complex reality of the Virginia statehouse.
"It's a cause there can't be much vocal opposition to," said Mary Petersen, a junior at Fairfax High School. "Drunk drivers don't just go out and affect one political party."
Kris Lampshire, a senior at Mount Vernon High, was skeptical: "Yeah, but they might all take a different view of how to deal with the problem. We might get the political runaround."
The drunk driving issue has taken the Virginia General Assembly by storm this session, with 21 bills and resolutions filed on the subject.
It isn't the first time the subject has been introduced in the legislature. Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick County) has been pushing tougher drunk driving penalties for five years.
"I formed a study commission on the issue three years ago," said Terry. "There was virtually no interest. There's tremendous interest this year; there's no comparison."
"It all started because of a series of teen-age kids killed in Fairfax County," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who has co-authored one of the toughest drunk driving bills offered this year, legislation that requires a 48-hour mandatory jail term on first conviction.
Four young people were killed in a two-car collision in late 1979. Edward Kunec, 20, of Falls Church, died in a car crash last July. And Susan Herzog, 18, a Robinson High School senior, was killed in an automobile wreck New Year's Eve.
Those deaths spawned organizations of outraged families and friends--MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and SADD, Students Against Drunk Drivers--and triggered a vocal public backlash.
Last week MADD and SADD groups presented an armload of petitions with more than 9,000 signatures to Gov. Charles S. Robb, soliciting his support for stronger penalties for drunk drivers.
SADD groups have sprung up at seven Fairfax County high schools. SADD members at Woodson collected 1,335 signatures, more than half of the student enrollment, on petitions to the governor. Mount Vernon High students collected 265 names in three days.
"I was sad when I used to hear on TV about somebody getting killed by a drunk driver," said Laura Anne Daniel, a senior at Chantilly High. "Then I saw it was getting closer and closer to me. I didn't want to sit around and wait for it to happen. . . . They (lawmakers) have to take notice of all this."
Student and parent lobbyists had little trouble picking up support from politicians at every level: county supervisors, legislators, the governor. But Saslaw cautioned that all the support may be coming a little too easily.
"A lot of politicians are using these people," said Saslaw. Local officials especially, he said, are using the issue and the momentum started by students and parents to steal some of the limelight for themselves.
After sitting through an hour of emotional testimony before a packed audience in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week, Saslaw slumped dejectedly in a chair at the end of the committee table. His tone exuded pessimism.
The tough bills would never pass, he predicted. The jails already are overcrowded, the other senators would say. Mandatory jail sentences for drunk drivers only will add to the problem, they would argue.
"We must start somewhere," Woodson High sophomore and founder of the county's first SADD group, Kim Ritchie, pleaded with the Senate committee. "When Americans kill and kill and kill on the nation's highways, nobody can do anything about it. We hear there's no money, we hear people can't get to work if we take their driver's license away, we hear that there is no jail space. We hear some argument against every proposal presented as a possible solution."
By early this week, Saslaw's glum predictions had not yet materialized. In fact, lawmakers were opting for the harder bills, including a measure Saslaw backed. Authored by Sen. A. Joseph Canada (R-Virginia Beach), it requires a mandatory jail sentence on first conviction.
"These fellows are beginning to realize people are for this type of legislation," said a spokesman for Canada. "Our office has been bombarded with letters supporting it."
Lawmakers expect Canada's bill to be incorporated with Del. Terry's measure by the end of the session.
Terry's bill requires judges to sentence drunk drivers to the state's Alcohol Safety Action Program, a rehabilitation program, in addition to convicting them of drunk driving. Currently, state law allows judges to withhold judgment on drunk drivers who agree to go through an ASAP-type program.
The proposed legislation would place the conviction on the driver's record regardless of participation in the program, she said.
Is interest in the drunk driving subject just a passing fad among high school students who have found few causes to rally around the past few years?
Says Kim Ritchie: "Every time there's another accident we can be there reminding people that something has got to be done. It's better than doing nothing."