On July 1, 1984, WRC-TV reporter Kelly Burke was involved in an auto accident. The driver of another car, Dennis Crouch, was killed in the collision. Burke, whose blood alcohol level was .08, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and crossing a center line. The offense, his first, brought a $500 fine, two years' probation, a license revocation and an order to perform community service by producing a TV documentary aimed at deterring drunk driving. The program, "Drinking and Driving: The Toll, The Tears," will air May 7 at 9 p.m. nationally on PBS (Channel 26 in Washington). Burke raised the funds to produce the show himself and took no compensation.
WHAT DO YOU want to be remembered for in this life. Your failures? No. Neither do I. It may seem incongruous, then, that I should be writing this article. My employer, my family and my friends think so. They say, "Why let more people know you drove impaired? Why let more people know a person died in the accident? Why give people another opportunity to tear you down? Let it go, Kelly. Let it go."
There is a simple answer. A major consequence of an incident such as mine is that one can never completely let it go.
It has been nearly two years now. Even now I am reminded of it each day, when I hear news of an accident or the sound of sirens, or see a drunk-driving public service announcement on TV, or sit on an endless bus ride, or catch eyes staring and avoiding. There is still a void to fill. Other drivers involved in accidents know the void of which I speak. It involves a loss -- certainly not of the kind or magnitude of a victim -- but a loss nonetheless, a loss of dignity.
So, I raise the issue again, publicly, in perhaps a futile effort, to urge others to avoid this void.
"What do you mean? I'm not like you," you say. In recent years, the public attention on this issue, while constructive in many ways, has left a simplistic picture of the impaired driver. It has been encouraged, perhaps, by superficial media coverage that stresses the worst cases. Someone who has been arrested many times who has not born what others perceive as the ultimate consequence -- jail. Someone who can be the easy hook for generalizing about everyone else arrested. It's as if he or she is some mutant from a netherworld who has no history as a person and no kinship with us.
The perception is convenient. It allows people to presume crashes only happen to others. It allows people to separate themselves from the problem even though they may still drink and drive. They have yet to have a tragedy so they conclude they can reckon with alcohol.
Well, they may be naive. My incident was a first offense. I had taken some steps to make sure I was okay to drive before I took the wheel. My blood alcohol level was half the average for those involved in fatal accidents. Yet, still it happened. And, it happens everyday to a couple thousand people, all of whom presume it won't. The variables involved in driving -- in my case that morning, fatigue -- make it unwise to presume any amount of alcohol is safe.
Society does not make it easy on anyone anymore. A new standard has been set for drunk driving. Penalties are cumulative, released like ingredients in a time capsule. A string of consequences will make your life difficult, even if jail is not prescribed.
First, understand that the violence of the crash itself will rack your body and soul. It took over three months for me to get over my injuries and longer to get over the nightmares. Remember, you're meeting death face to face. I was conscious, lying in the street, unable to move, listening to the other driver moan, suddenly aware this was no dream and there was no way to rewind and start over. Regret, guilt, despair will become your companions.
Expect humiliation the minute the police arrive. The questions started for me while I was lying in the street. Charges were levied while I was being treated in the emergency room. Expect an ominous feeling that nothing will ever be the same again.
Many are taken to jail right away. While inebriated, emotions are volatile. Anger and fear breed fights with police. Jail suicides have increased with the rising rate of arrests.
One driver, whom I have included in the documentary, felt panic set in as he sat in a cell. He desperately wanted to phone someone to find out how his best friend -- a passenger in the car he was driving -- was. Police derided him, refused his request and slammed the door on him leaving him alone with his anxiety. He later learned his friend was paralyzed for life.
Expect the legal grinder to wind tortuously slow. It was five months before I was tried, seven months before I was sentenced, nine months before my license was revoked, 11 months before the civil suit was settled, a year and three months before the documentary was finished, a year and eight months before I was allowed back on the air as a reporter. I still don't have a driver's license and my probation will not be finished until January.
The driver I referred to before was from New York. That state had administrative revocation. That means his license was taken before trial. Because his job depended on his driving, he was fired. His company insurance would not cover his medical bills because he was charged with an alcohol offense. He was unable to find a decent job because he couldn't drive to search for one or get to work. If he had been charged with a felony, as many are today, it would have been even more difficult to find a job.
Today, confinement is mandatory in several states at sentencing. You can be sent to a DWI (driving while intoxicated) facility, like the new one in Prince George's County. It is not a reprieve. There you may be able to work during the day so that your family can make ends meet, but you will have to stay locked up at night and on weekends. In the documentary, Robert Phelan, convicted of manslaughter, says "The regimen plays havoc with you. You start to feel normal at work and then it's back to jail." You will have to attend nightly alcohol-counseling classes. Your family will have to attend classes, too, when they want to visit you. You also will be forced to pay for your room and board.
When you're released, you will have to continue weekly classes or attend AA meetings and report to a drunk-driver monitor once a week for as long as is warranted. You will likely have to perform community service as well. You will probably be unable to drive yourself to fulfill any of these requirements. Somehow you will have to fit work and other necessities in along the way. You can expect some unannounced visits at home or work from your probation officer who will check to see if you are abstaining from alcohol.
You could very well be sentenced to a traditional jail. Cheryl White, whom I interviewed for the documentary, spent nearly two years in prison for the deaths of two children in P.G. County four years ago. She was separated from her own two little girls all that time. Finding child care and a job once she was released was difficult. Robert Williams, convicted in the deaths of seven people waiting for a bus in D.C., will spend the rest of his life in Lorton. He told me, "Maybe God kept me alive just to punish me."
David Fleming, the first man to be convicted of murder under federal statute in a drunk-driving case, has spent three years in prison. Besides killing Margaret Haley, an Alexandria mother of 11, he crippled himself in his crash. From his cell he told me, "I don't know but I would have been better off if I had died in that accident too." Those drivers who appear in my program all called jail a nowhere place with nowhere people who do nothing but worry, wait and think of what might have been.
Then, there is the jail of your own making. The one in your mind. The one you construct out of the anger you feel toward yourself. I spent a long while there. Community service becomes an effective punishment because of this factor. In writing about the incident and doing the documentary, I relived what happened and was forced to deal with its implications. A Post editorialist implied once that such a sentence would be easy for me because it's what I do for a living. It wasn't easy. In seeking funding for the program and in researching it, I had to tell people over and over what happened. In producing and reporting it, I interviewed drivers and victims and experienced their pain. I screened, again and again, the comments of Sandra Crouch, the widow of Dennis Crouch, and saw pictures of her children. There was nothing easy about preparing that segment. I agonized over how to do the program without appearing to be self-serving or hypocritical, knowing full well I would never be able -- even with the best of intentions -- to avoid criticism or make amends. The jail of your own making can sometimes be the worst.
Expect your personal life to suffer. Family members try to be supportive, but they resent what's happened. Each step in the legal process brings tension. Everyone feels insecure. Because of the stigma and the rollercoaster ride through depression, you don't want to go anywhere or see anyone. You become a social cripple. Everyone gets tired of driving you everywhere, especially when your home is a long way from the city. You become dependent. You lose credibility with your kids. The preaching about individual responsibility you were so famous for seems empty. You suppress your feelings. You don't want to make things worse. You end up sometimes sleeping overnight at the office when you work late so as not to inconvenience. You hitchhike occasionally, too.
Life is lived at a different plane. Decidedly, lower.
Expect to be drained financially. Doctor bills, legal fees, damages run into thousands of dollars. I am now mortgaged to the hilt and undecided how to recover.
Expect life without a car to be difficult. There is not a day you will be free from worrying about logistics. Expect the Motor Vehicle Administration to put you in a bureaucratic vice. The MVA has tremendous latitude. It can extend the period of license suspension or revocation well beyond its original term. Expect interminable requests for information and fees. Expect to attend several weeks of alcohol-awareness classes and several weeks in the driver-improvement program. Expect to go before a medical advisery board which will determine whether you are fit to drive. Expect the board to either prohibit you from drinking and/or restrict your driving to and from work as a condition for getting your license back. Expect to pay between $2,000 and $3,000 a year for insurance for high-risk drivers. It will take three years of an unblemished record to get lower rates again.
I am not trying to gain any sympathy. Nor are the drivers who appear in the documentary. They all have the empty feeling that comes with the resignation that little can be done. But they -- we -- regret what has happened and want others to understand the consequences are real.
In an unlikely alliance, so do the victims who appear on the program. The consequences faced by them are overwhelming. They speak with an intimacy I have seldom experienced. It is difficult to listen to Dick Haley speak of how hard it is to plan for one instead of two now that his wife Margaret is gone. It is hard to listen to several of the 11 children of the Haleys describe the ripple effect on the lives of everyone who knew their vibrant mother. At the same time, the family shows a strength of character that is remarkable, and a spirit of healing that offers hope.
As John Corrigan stands by the bedside of his daughter Maura, who has been paralyzed in a nursing home in Cleveland -- unable to respond for five years -- our vulnerability is completely exposed. "We would consider it a blessing," says Corrigan, "if God decided to take Maura now and ease her suffering."
Case after case simply explains what happened to people. The toll builds and it becomes clear without statistics just how tragic drunk driving is.
It may make some angry. I have been angry at myself time and again. I've been angry at society too. This country creates the wrong expectations in people by failing to address our dependancy on alcohol despite the staggering toll. It's hypocritical to sanction and encourage the consumption of an addictive drug -- as dangerous as any that are now banned -- and expect people to be immune to its effects and make good decisions. Unless this flaw in our culture is changed, nothing will change.
I've learned in a terrible way that alcohol does not discriminate between good guys and bad guys. Alcohol doesn't give chits for past good behavior. It indiscriminately and progressively manipulates and destroys one's judgement. No Madison Avenue glitz will ever be able to counter that basic truth.
It may be suggested that I am attempting to explain away the responsibility to make the right choice. I am only saying that making the right choice is not made easy in a country where drinking is a pastime, despite the clear evidence that any amount of the chemical consumed can inhibit the ability to make that right choice.
If you haven't guessed it, I don't drink anymore and don't intend to ever again. There is no pleasure associated with it. Personally, I feel that total abstinence is the ultimate answer to the problem of drunk driving. But, to expect such a moral consensus would be naive, wouldn't it?
So, I can only appeal to that which motivates most people -- self-interest. The wheel of fortune is weighted, not in your favor, if you do as I did -- expect too much of yourself after drinking. Understand that drivers injure and kill themselves, their families and friends, and others. They bear social stigmas -- jail, the loss of jobs, the loss of license, civil suits, and financial ruin.
Perhaps, most important, though, it never seems over. As I said in the beginning, it is difficult to let it go. So many people tell you you must. But, no one can tell you how.