It's been three years now since Carol and Doug Weiger received the visit that haunts them to this day. Your son, the police officer said, has been hit by a car.
Half an hour later, their son was dead. A year later, the Weigers learned that the man who killed him had pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge -- and had been fined $600.
Today the Weigers are angry -- angry at the sentence that they assail as obscenely lenient and angry that what happened to 16-year-old Peter Lewis Weiger has happened to so many thousands of America's sons and daughters.
Nearly 70 and persons a day -- about 1 every 23 minutes -- are killed in drunken driving crashes -- the nation's single greatest killer of people under 34, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nearly 26,000 persons die in the United States each year in drunken driving incidents -- the nation's leading cause of highway deaths.
Over the last decade, more than 250,000 Americans have died because of drunken drivers on U.S. highways, more than four times the number of Americans killed during a decade of fighting in the Vietnam War.
The more than 1 million crippling and other serious injuries attributable to drunken driving cause economic losses estimated at more than $5 billion a year in this country.
One of every two Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related auto crash in his or her lifetime.
On a Saturday night, one in 10 drivers on America's streets and highways will be legally drunk.
While only one out of every 2,000 drunken drivers will ever be arrested -- and far fewer will ever receive stiff punishment for their crime -- an estimated one out of every 100 babies born this year will die in a crash with a drunken driver.
"The drunk-driving problem in this county has reached epidemic proportions," said John Moulden, a research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's a national outrage that even when thousands of people are being killed each year by drunk drivers, our society continues to accept drinking and driving as a normal part of daily life."
Peter Weiger, a popular sophomore at Thomas J. Wootton Senior High School in Rockville, Md., was walking down a winding country road on the night of Oct. 8, 1977, when a neighbor in a pickup truck ran over him and kept going. The driver of a car following the truck copied the tag number and the driver was promptly arrested.
The Weigers rushed to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, expecting to find their son badly injured, but alive. Instead, a doctor told them Peter had died of massive head injuries shortly after he reached the hospital. His battered body had already been taken to the hospital morgue.
Now, every time a fire engine or ambulance passes their home, the Weigers -- who have a 13-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son -- say they relive the night of Peter's death.
"We think about Peter and we look around for the other kids just to be sure they're safe," said Carol Weiger. "We couldn't bear to lose another child."
"He really was a great kid," Douglas Weiger said. "He loved people. He enjoyed loud music, parties and girls. He was a 4-H Club member and a Boy Scout. It makes me angry every time I think that someone took my child's life."
What has left the Weigers even more bitter and distressed, they say, is the sentence meted out to the driver, their former neighbor Edgar Garfield Rogers.
The outcome: According to court records, Rogers pleaded guilty in Montgomerty County District Court to driving while impaired by alcohol and to hit and run, and was fined a total of $610.
"There was 1.3 million drunk-driving arrests in the United States last year," said Moulden of the national highway agency. "The few statistics available show that not many drunk drivers ever receive serious punishment for their crime.
"A lot of prosecutors, judges and jurors put a low priority on drunk-driving cases," he said. When they see a drunk driver, in a lot of ways they tend to see themselves and take the philosophical view that, 'But for the grace of God, there go I.'"
Last year, 950 drivers were arrested on drunken-driving charges in Montgomery County. A total of 1,001 cases -- including 41 cases unresolved in 1979 -- went to court.
In court, 574 drivers were found guilty. Judges gave 189 drivers "probation before judgment," a device in Maryland state law that permits judges to place a person on probation and erase all records of the original charge. Sixty-six drivers were tried by jury and 42 of these were found guilty. The state's attorney dismissed 130 cases.
"I'm dissatisfied with the sentences judges hand out in general," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew Sonner. "But I think over-crowded jails have given judges a legitimate reason to lock up fewer drunk drivers. Five years ago, 100 percent of our convicted armed robbers were sent to state prisons. Now at least 40 percent of them must be sent to the county detention center."
Judge Robert S. Heise of Anne Arundel County District Court said penalties placed on drunken drivers often are too harsh, and that he rarely finds it necessary to impose jail terms in such cases.
"The philosophy of some people is that you have to make the punishment fit the crime," he said. "But that's the wrong way to look at drunk drivers. These are social drinkers who went a little overboard. They're not alcoholics or criminals. Most of the time they've done nothing dangerous, but have merely violated a law."
Judge Heise said there is not much evidence that a jail term is appropriate punishment for a drunken driver, even for alcohol-related fatalities.
"I just feel that some of these people [convicted of drunken-driving deaths] have already suffered more than I could impose on them," Heise said. "Besides that, the state prison system has told me they're over-crowded and that I shouldn't send them anyone else. When I have to choose between sending an armed bank robber or a drunk driver to jail, I think it's more important to send the robber."
Barbara Gilman, 18, was driving home from a church picnic on Aug. 19, 1979, when her car was hit on a curve near her Upper Marlboro home and forced off the road. She died instantly. The driver was not injured.
Just a month before her death, Gilman -- the youngest of 12 children -- had been at a family reunion with her parents. Shortly before that, she had participated in an older sister's wedding.
"Barbara loved sports. She enjoyed music and played the French horn," remembers her mother, Emily Gilman. "Her death has left a big vacuum in our lives. It's tough to adjust to what's happened.
"I am not bitter or angry. You have to try to accept the will of God," she said. "But it seems like the drunk drivers get off so easily. They just go back out and hurt somebody else."
The outcome: According to court records, the police found beer cans in the other driver's car and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol, passing in a no-passing lane and automobile manslaughter. As is his right, the driver refused to take tests that would have established the alcohol content in his blood. He was acquitted of drunken driving and the charge of illegal passing, but was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison -- 18 months of which were suspended, according to the court records.
The District of Columbia -- distinguished as the capital of the United States -- also has the dubious distinction of having the second highest level of liquor consumption in the country.
In 1979, Washingtonians and their guest drank 5.95 gallons of alcohol for every man, woman and child in the city, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That was second only to Nevada's rate of 6.25 gallons per person.
District police arrested 3,439 drivers on drunken-driving charges last year, and there were 46 alcohol-related traffic deaths in the city, which has one of the nation's toughest law enforcement programs against drunken driving.
The D.C. corporation counsel took 3,395 cases to court. Of that number, 411 drivers pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol. Fifty-four went to trial on drunken-driving charges. Thirty-five of those were convicted and 19 were acquitted. In 477 cases, all charges were dismissed.
In about 1,500 cases, those charged with driving under the influence of alcohol were allowed to plead guilty to the less serious charge of reckless driving.
Of eight negligent homicide cases -- most of them alcohol-related -- handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District last year, two were found guilty by jury, two cases are awaiting trial and four drivers pleaded guilty.
Among the drivers who have pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in D.C. is Lester Lee Mackey Jr., a former Marine charged in the death on Dec. 22, 1979, of 63-year-old Earl S. Mathews.
Mackey, 36, said he remembers driving down 11th Street NW near Rhode Island Avenue when he saw a man several blocks away step off the curb and start to cross the street at an angle.
"I had decided to speed up and hurry on by the man when all of a sudden he turned an ran straight into my lane of traffic," Mackey said. "When he ran to my side of the street, I knew I would have to hit him. There was no way I could stop."
Mathews, a resident of Northwest Washington, was killed immediately.
"I had drank a little whiskey and a few beers, but I wasn't drunk," said Mackey, a Vietnam veteran, who added that he was disabled in 1978 when a stranger shot him in the back and injured his spine. "I feel within myself there was nothing I could have done to avoid the accident except not be there.
"I try not to think about [the fatal accident] that much," said Mackey, who works part time as a hair stylist. "I've seen a lot of people die in Vietnam and even on the streets of Washington. All I can say is God forgive me."
The outcome: Mackey, who said he lobbed the can of beer he'd been drinking out of the car seconds before police arrived at the scene, was originally charged with involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded guilty on Jan. 11, 1960, to the lesser charge of negligent homicide. He was sentenced to six months in jail. The jail term was suspended and Mackey was placed on two years' probation.
Charles and Irma Jacobson of Arlington, Va., had celebrated George Washington's birthday last month by going on an early morning shopping trip. When they returned home that afternoon, she began preparing dinner while he disappeared into the basement.
Moments later, a car careened across the Jacobsens' front lawn, mowed down a row of azaleas, uprooted a pine tree, and knocked down a brick wall before coming to rest on top of the Jacobsens' car.
"I heard an awful crash. I ran to the window and saw the man's car had knocked down the brick wall," said Irma Jacobson, a native of Italy who married her husband there seven years ago. "I started calling my husband. I though he was still in the basement. I wanted him to come up and help me call an ambulance because I thought the driver may have been hurt."
She was still looking for her husband when she went outside where neighbors had gathered on her driveway.
"Someone shouted, 'Mrs. Jacobsen, you husband is over here.' I thought my husband was behind the car helping an injured person," she said. "I took a look and saw that he had been crushed in the accident."
Six hours later, Charles P. Jacobsen IV, 33, died at the hospital from internal bleeding.
The outcome According to Arlington County records, the driver, Walter John Anholt, has pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and is awaiting an April 6 trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Arlington County recorded 1,965 drunken-driving arrests and three alcohol-related deaths last year. A conviction rate of more than 80 percent was achieved primarily by reducing drunken-driving charges to lesser offenses.
The Fairfax County General District Court processed 4,275 drunken-driving cases in 1980. About 200 of those were dismissed, and 4,527 defendants were convicted on guilty pleas or jury verdicts. Jail terms -- although largely suspended in most cases -- were meted out in 1,368 cases.
Both Fairfax and Arlington counties resolve most of their drunken-driving cases by allowing most of the offending drivers to enroll in the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP), an eight-month program of treatment and education.After the driver successfully completes the program, the drunken-driving charge is automatically reduced to the less serious reckless-driving charge.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan said ideally he would like to see drunken drivers who kill someone with their automobile convicted of manslaughter. "But it is almost impossible for us go get a manslaughter conviction when the incident involves alcohol," Horan said. "We must convince a jury that the driver's behavior exemplified a willful, wanton and reckless disregard for human life. And it's rare that we are successful with that approach to the prosecution."
Most often, Horan said, alcohol-related cases that otherwise would be considered manslaughters -- carrying a penalty of one month to five years in state prison -- are reduced to reckless driving, a charge that carries a lesser penalty. That penalty, Horan said, can range up to one year in county jail, but judges rarely impose the maximum.
John R. Pierce, a former employe of The Washington Post, and his wife and daughter were driving home from a New Year's Eve party in upper Northwest Washington during the early morning hours of last Jan. 1. At one moment, Pierce was making a left turn from Wisconsin Avenue onto Woodley Road. Seconds later, he was scrambling from the wreckage of his mangled automobile. His daughter, Barbara, had been seriously injured. His wife, Jean, a Washington Post employe, had been killed almost instantly.
A 16-year-old driver -- who was returning from a party -- had sped through a red light add struck the Pierces' car broadside. The youth escaped injury in the crash.
"I'd seen the headlights coming a block away," said Pierce, 71 of Northwest Washington. "My natural instinct was that (the oncoming driver) would stop. Someone in the car said, 'He's coming awfully fast.' Next thing I new, we'd been hit."
It was particularly ironic, Pierce said, that his wife was killed by an automobile. "Over the years, a number of our friends had been killed in automobile accidents, (and) Jean had developed a real fear of the automobile as an instrument of destruction. When we used to walk down the street, she would be afraid to step off the curb to cross the street. She'd ask me, 'How do you know the cars are going to stop?'
"I would jokingly tell her, 'You can't stand on the corner all of your life,' and we would cross the street together."
The outcome: The youth was originally charged with drunken driving, speeding and running a red light. The drunken-driving charge was dismissed after blood alcohol tests showed he had a .08 blood-alchohol level -- two points below the city's legal limit of .10.
D.C. Superior Court sources said negligent homicide charges against the youth were reduced in juvenile court to reckless driving, to which the youth pleaded guilty. He was placed on probation. The speeding and red light charges are both civil charges that can be resolved with the payment of a fine. c
In all but two states, a person is considered legally drunk when his or her blood-alchohol content registers .10 percent. To achieve the limit, a 150-pound man would have to consume four one-ounce shots of 100-proof liquor or drink four 12-ounce beers in one hour, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. This level, local medical officials said, is sufficiently high to eliminate social drinkers.
Laws in Maryland and Mississippi allow a blood-alcohol content of .15 percent, which amounts to six shots of liquor or six 12-ounce beers in one hour for a man who weighs 150 pounds.
Revisions in the drunken-driving laws under consideration by Maryland legislators would lower the legally permissible blood-alcohol level to .l0.
Legislation introduced recently on the federal level by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), would make a 10-day jail term mandatory for drunken drivers convicted of the offense two or more times within five years. A repeat offender would also lose his or her driver's license for a mandatory one year.
Last July 12 had been an exciting day of fishing in the Chesapeake Bay for Tommy Sexton, 15, and two other youths. As Sexton drove home with his neighbors and their father, a car swerved across the center line and collided with theirs. The driver at fault was not hurt. The two youths and their father escaped with only minor injuries. But Tommy Sexton was killed. t
"You feel a lot of outrage when something like this happens. You wish there was some way you could strike back," said his father, Thomas Sexton. "He was such a kind kid. He loved to go fishing. But he didn't have the heart to kill the fish. He'd always throw them back."
"We consider that our son died as the result of a sensless crime," added Dottie Sexton. The Sextons also have a daughter, 12, and a son, 7. "In this instance, we do not feel that the criminal has been fairly punished for what he did."
The outcome: A month after his son's death, Thomas Sexton, who lives in Bowie, Md., sat in Calvert County District Court and watched a judge pronounce sentence on two men in two separate cases.
The first man, charged with stealing a pickup truck, was sentenced to two years in the county jail.
The second was David William Watkins, Jr., who hit the car in which Tommy Sexton was riding. He pleaded guilty to a charge of homocide by motor vehicle while intoxicated. Watkins was sentenced to two years in prison, with all the jail time suspended. The judge then ordered Watkins to pay a $1,000 fine, of which $800 was suspended.
Watkins paid the $200 and was placed on two years' probation, court records show.
"I think the biggest outrage is that the courts seem to place a much higher priority on a loss of personal property than they do on the loss of human life when it comes down to drunk-driving cases," said Dottie Sexton, fighting back the tears as she talked.
"We still cry when we think about what's happened to our son. We look at his school pictures often. One of the hardest things to accept is that his (picture) will never change. We haven't touched his room -- but we know he won't be back." CAPTION: Picture 1, Peter Weiger was killed by intoxicated drive, who received a fine of $600.; Picture 2, Barbara Gilman; Picture 3, Charles, Irma Jacobsen; Picture 4, Jean and John Pierce; Picture 5, Tommy Sexton