It was an ordinary night in January of 1990, and 28-year-old Denise Rivers was driving her 6-year-old daughter, Miranda, and one of her daughter’s friends home from a PTA meeting in Fairburn.
Suddenly, a car crossed the center line, heading straight for Rivers’ car. The further Rivers swerved to try to avoid a crash, the closer the car came to her. A head-on collision ensued. Miranda and her classmate survived, but after four days on life support in the hospital, Rivers succumbed to her injuries.
“You want to live and die at the same time,” said Rivers’ mother, Edna White, about losing her daughter. “You want to be with your family here, but that person that’s gone, they’re such a strong hold. It’s almost unbearable. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.”
The man who ran into Rivers was found to have a blood alcohol content above the legal limit. Rivers’ sister, Wanice Odell, said that although the man was sentenced to serve six years in prison for the crash that killer her sister, the man was released from prison after only 12 months.
Some may say that Rivers’ death was the result of a traffic accident, but Odell and her family refer to it as something quite different.
“MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] doesn’t refer to it as an ‘accident’ because the person had a choice,” Odell said. “It wasn’t an accident. They chose to get behind the wheel and drink and drive.”
Rivers, who was a teaching assistant at Mount Pisgah Christian School in Fairburn, was a wife, a mother of one, a daughter of two and a sister of three. Today her daughter is married and her siblings have started families of their own.
“My kids don’t get to see their aunt,” Odell said. “She’s not here to enjoy their lives and everything that has gone on in my life.”
In 2003, Odell met fellow Carroll County native Ronda Phillips at a state-wide MADD vigil in Atlanta, and the two women decided to work together to form a local MADD chapter. Phillips’ 18-year-old son, Jay Harrington, was involved in a crash with an impaired driver in 2001. Harrington’s girlfriend, who was in the car at the time of the crash, recovered after surgery and a great deal of physical therapy. Harrington, however, died the night of the crash.
“Initially, when Jay’s crash happened, it was really a shock first of all, that the crash was caused by a drunk driver,” Phillips said.
Harrington was a freshman at Southern Union State Community College in Alabama and working part-time at Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton with plans to pursue a career in health care. According to Phillips, the man who caused the crash that ended her son’s life received a sentence of 20 years in prison.
“He made a bad choice,” she said. “He wasn’t a bad person, he made a bad choice, but he gave up 20 years of his life.”
Since that time, Phillips’ life was impacted yet again by driving under the influence, when her parents were involved in a similar crash last year. Phillips’ father endured a spinal injury as a result of the crash and has been unable to walk, eat or breathe on his own since.
“My parents are retirement age, so they should be at a point where they’re enjoying life,” Phillips said with tears in her eyes. “And now my mom is my dad’s care taker, and his quality of life is very poor.”
Sgt. Russell Grizzard, who oversees the traffic division of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, said that while DUIs are still very much an issue in Carroll County, the number of offenders has decreased significantly in recent years. When Grizzard first joined the Sheriff’s Offce DUI Task Force in 2001 (the year the division was formed), he and the other three task-force members each made 10 to 15 DUI arrests each month. Now, each officer usually makes six or seven DUI arrests in a given month.
“It’s still a problem, but it’s not really as bad as it was before he [Carroll County Sheriff Terry Langley] started the DUI Task Force,” Grizzard said. “I think folks know that the Sheriff’s Office has a group out there that’s really focusing on it.”
Capt. Jami Sailors of the Carrollton Police Department’s patrol division said that in Carrollton, he believes that an increased presence of taxis in downtown Carrollton on weekends have cut down on the number of DUI arrests in the city.
“There’s a lot more taxis out there now, and they’re starting to take advantage of it,” said Sailors.
Despite the reduction in number, deputies have still made 162 arrests so far in 2008. Carrollton police made 21 DUI arrests in September alone. Many of the impaired drivers arrested in Carroll County have been arrested for the same crime before.
“Sometimes we see the same ones more than once within the same year,” said Deputy Greg Holcomb.
Holcomb said that each time a person decides to drive under the influence, his chances of being involved in a crash are increased. Grizzard estimated that around a third of the accidents he handles involve an impaired driver.
DUI, no matter how many times a person has been charged with the crime, is still a misdemeanor offense. Starting in July 2009, the fourth DUI charge an individual receives within a 10-year period will be considered a felony offense under Georgia law, but only charges filed after the law takes effect next year will be counted toward that total.
According to Solicitor General for the State Court of Carroll County Jimmy Tuggle, a typical punishment for a first-time DUI offender includes a fine of between $300 and $1,000, 24 hours in jail, 40 hours of community service and a MADD-sponsored victim impact panel. The offender’s licence is also usually revoked for about 120 days.
After a third offense in five years, an offender is considered a habitual violator. Typical punishment would include a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000, 15 days in jail and 30 days of community service. Usually, the offender is also sentenced to take a DUI risk-reduction course, undergo a clinical evaluation to assess whether he or she may have a substance abuse problem and any follow-ups recommended, have an interlock device installed in any vehicle he or she drives and pay to have his or her photo run in the local newspaper.
The offender’s licence is generally revoked for a period of five years as well. Tuggle said all of those measures are minimums and judges have the authority to increase the punishments.
The local MADD chapter started hosting the victim impact panels for first-time DUI offenders in 2005 as a means of educating offenders. Phillips, White and other victims all speak to crowds of 30 to 45 people who have been charged with DUI offenses. Although the offenders who attend the panels are ordered to do so, Phillips said that sharing her story is still therapeutic.
“It helps to give some purpose to the loss of your loved one,” Phillips said. “More than anything, I want to keep this from happening to someone else.”
Although after five years, MADD is still struggling to build a solid volunteer base. Odell, Phillips and other group members work full-time jobs and still participate in national MADD campaigns like “Tie One On For Safety” and sobriety check-points done by local law enforcement groups. Odell said she also hopes to have MADD volunteers training to become victim advocates, who would accompany the families of victims lost in drunk driving crashes during court dates.
Odell said that most of all, she hopes to spread awareness about driving under the influence to help prevent crashes like the one that took her sister’s life.
“That’s where my passion comes from, in trying to prevent this loss from happening to anyone else,” Odell said.