About 3:30 p.m. on July 7, Kate Fowle, who lives nearby, was driving along Potomac Avenue NW near Newark Street. She passed a brown Chrysler that was stopped in the middle of the street. Its engine was idling, and the driver, a man in his fifties, was slumped over the wheel.
Kate figured the driver must be catching 40 winks. Better to do that on a drowsy side street like Potomac Avenue than to drift off on far busier nearby thoroughfares like MacArthur Boulevard or Arizona Avenue, Kate thought. She decided not to interfere and went on her way.
But when she returned from doing an errand about 20 minutes later, the Chrysler was still in the middle of the street, its engine was still idling and the driver was still slumped over the wheel. This time, Kate called 911.
As she waited for an ambulance to arrive, Kate went to see whether the driver was still among the living and, if so, whether he needed any help. As Kate stood beside the driver's side door, the driver came briefly and fitfully to life.
He got out of the car, mumbling about how little sleep he'd gotten the night before. He also mentioned that he had just delivered flowers to nearby Sibley Memorial Hospital. Kate says the man was neatly dressed in a sports cap and a shirt and trousers, but he wasn't very coherent because he was "practically falling asleep as he stood there."
After about 20 minutes, an ambulance arrived. The crew asked the man if he wanted to go to a hospital.
Legally, that's all the city allows an ambulance crew to ask someone as long as the someone is conscious and in one piece. The official reasoning: If ambulance crews summarily packed people off to emergency rooms against their wishes, not only might the city be sued up one side and down the other, but we'd all be paying for ambulance runs that in many cases would be unnecessary.
The Chrysler driver said no, he didn't want to go to a hospital. All he wanted to do was to go home. And with that, he slid sleepily behind the wheel, put the car in gear and vanished. Kate says he was nodding toward dreamland as he left.
Kate asked the ambulance crew if they had noticed anything unusual about the man. They said they had. He had jagged needle track marks all over the insides of his elbows. Clearly, the crew members said, the man had been an intravenous drug user at some time, and might still be one.
Was he under the influence of intravenous drugs as he drove away? The crew couldn't say for sure, Kate reports. She asked if she should call the police to warn them that a potentially dangerous driver was on the loose. You'd only be wasting a quarter, the ambulance crew told Kate. The police would never stop someone on such grounds, or investigate any such report, the crew said.
So the long and the short of it is that the driver went on his merry way, nobody did anything about it and nobody would have done anything about it even if they'd been told.
Feeling safe and secure on the streets of your home town? Me too.
Obviously, there should have been some way for the ambulance crew or Kate Fowle to have made a report about this driver, while still respecting his privacy and civil rights. But the system we have in place doesn't permit that.
Report this case to the average police desk sergeant, and he'll roll his eyes. "What do you want me to do?" he'll ask. "Lock up somebody for being sleepy?"
What we need is an approach that doesn't involve the police. We need a system modeled after the one the D.C. Taxicab Commission uses to straighten out cabbies who don't bother to play by the rules. If we can't prevent people like Mr. Brown Chrysler from driving while exhausted, or while under the influence of drugs, then let's hit them after the fact in a vulnerable place: their driver's licenses.
The city should set up a phone number through which citizens could report incidents such as the one on Potomac Avenue. An investigator would contact the driver of the vehicle and all witnesses, and compile a report. A hearing would be held if necessary. The accused would have the right to counsel and to cross-examine witnesses. The ultimate penalty would be (and should be) a suspended or revoked license.
This system would free the police to worry about everything else they have on their plates. It would give people like Kate Fowle a direct and effective way to make their neighborhoods safer. It wouldn't constitute vigilantism because the entire process would be out in the open, and the sleepy or drugged-out driver would have his day in court. But by putting that driver in direct jeopardy of losing his license, you and I will become a little bit safer.
Of course, such a scheme would cost money. But so does the Taxicab Commission, and so do the ticket-writers from the Department of Public Works. Can anyone doubt that these employees have proved their worth? Not if you remember how often cabbies and parkers used to ignore the law.
A D.C. Drivers Commission would protect us in the same way.