Putting an End to Drunk Driving with Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Jan Withers

December 4, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have with us on Green is Good Jan Withers. She’s the National President of MADD, which is Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Welcome to Green is Good, Jan Withers. JAN WITHERS: Well, thank you very much. I’m so pleased to be here with you today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, this is such an important topic, Jan, and we’re so honored to have you on because I hope all our listeners here in the United States and around the world listen to this show today and the important message you have to get out but before we get into all the important work that you do and Mothers Against Drunk Driving do, can you share first how you came to become the National President? Share your story and your journey. JAN WITHERS: I sure will. It was over 20 years ago. It was in 1992 when my middle child, Alyssa Joy is her name and she was 15 years old at the time and she was spending the night at her best friend’s home during spring vacation and there were three girls there, all sophomores, and two senior boys came over and her friend, Leanna, had a crush on one of the boys and Leanna’s parents allowed the three girls to go out with the guys. What they didn’t know is that the boys had been drinking and they continued to do so. They had stashed two cases of beer in the woods and so they went to a local pond where the guys drank and so on the way home, the driver, who had lost all of his inhibitions and, of course, all of his reaction time and everything, he was very impaired. He lost control of the car. He was going over 120 miles an hour and the car careened across the road into the woods and as it did that, a guardrail ripped off the right side of the car and Alyssa was thrown out of that right side of the car into the woods so the first gentleman on the scene, this was in ’92 so not everyone had cell phones yet, and so the first gentleman on the scene heard the other kids calling for her and he found her. He went to the nearest house, had them call 911 and he went back and sat with her. I was so grateful to that gentleman for doing that so she was medevac’d to shock trauma and we were summoned and we went there and the surgeon spent all night trying to save her life but at 4:30 in the morning, she died but we were there. I’m so glad we were there by her side. She was unconscious but we were there so as a result of that, of course, I was flattened. I couldn’t work. I really just kind of shuffled from the bed to the couch and wandered around and just the anguish is so intense there aren’t any words to describe it and I really felt like I was going crazy so one day, a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you call MADD?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t have the energy to be active. I can’t do that. I can’t even function,’ and she said, ‘No, no, maybe they could help you,’ so I called out of desperation and what I found was the most wonderful victim advocate on the other end of the phone and she was so kind and just truly my lifeline so not only did she give me help over the many years but she also gave me hope again that there is life after this and not only life, but I didn’t want to just survive. I wanted to be able to thrive again and so even further down the road, as I began to stabilize, I did want to make a difference and so I started speaking at victim impact panels and those are things that judges will often sentence a first time drunk for having offended to attend one of these and they go and they listen to people who have been victimized, received injuries, had their loved one killed, victims of some kind, in hopes that it will affect them and not do this again and so I began speaking at the victim impact panel and then I also wanted to change the laws. I was angry that our society just accepted this as part of life and it doesn’t need to be part of life. It’s 100% preventable, and so I began working to lobby with MADD to change laws and indeed, I was active in Maryland at the time. Maryland was the only state, along with Oklahoma, that still had drunk driving fatalities, vehicular homicide and manslaughter, as a misdemeanor. It was still a misdemeanor then so that made me very angry and so that was one of the first things I became active with but along the line, during that time period, this driver was actually his blood alcohol content was at a 0.08 BAC and so when we started working hard to get the BAC lowered federally from a 0.10 to a 0.08, I became part of that movement too because Alyssa was like a poster child for that and became very active with that but I’ll tell you what, my real love is victim services and as I received help, I wanted to be able to reach out and help other people across that rocky path and so I became trained as a victim advocate and I spent the best past many years doing that as a victim advocate. I have a support group that meets once a month and just doing all of that. Later on, more recently, I was invited to become a member of the national board and so I did that and became more active with the national MADD and then was elected to this position as President, which is a three-year term. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What a wonderful how you took a tragedy and you have triumphed over that and turned it into a tremendous platform for doing good. I just give you so much credit. I really do and your story is as relevant today and maybe the most relevant today because something I want to just step back and ask you about: You said you helped take the 0.10 BAC to 0.08 across America. In a time, here we are in 2013, Jan, where I think one thing that we can all agree upon as a country is that Washington has become more dysfunctional, unfortunately, than ever before and the fact that our listeners have to find hope that there is a power in one person and a group of committed people like you who can work together that can effectuate powerful change in this country still through the government and the political process, I think that’s a sign of hope that we all have to grab onto and realize in this democracy, it still can be done. So many people say I want to help change this. I want to help gun control laws, let’s just say, but I don’t think Washington will listen and it will never get done but here, you came up against an issue that, like you said, historically had been societally pushed under the rug and you turned back the tide and you created a new paradigm and good for you because this has really changed the way we all think about drunk driving. JAN WITHERS: It really has, hasn’t it? And, really, it is the combined effort of everyone in MADD across the country. It’s not one person and also, the power to be is that we don’t just go and talk about statistics. It’s about the personal stories and when the legislator, the law maker, can relate to those personal stories and they can put their own family members in that scenario, if they can imagine that, then they do, of course, when they hear the other personal stories, it does affect change and they listen, not that it’s easy. I can’t say that it’s easy. It’s work to bring people on board but you can accomplish it as an organization. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Jan, I’m on your wonderful website, MADD’s website, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and while we’re talking here, I’m on it and I urge our listeners to join in and look at it as well, whether now or later today, MADD.org and I’m on the site. Can you share a little bit? Walk us through because there’s so much here and there’s so many points of engagement. If I’m an individual coming to the site for the first time, which I have to shamefully admit this is the first time I’m really spending a lot of time on the site, how do I engage? Because it looks like there’s so many entrance points. What’s the best way to begin? JAN WITHERS: I love that website. I really do love our website and it is MADD.org but I think, you know, different people have different areas of wanting to be involved and you know, we are a grassroots organization and so we always invite people to join us and I’m excited because many, many people involved with MADD have not personally been affected by drunk driving but they’re there because they don’t ever want to be and they want to help keep our citizens safe but we can give our time and our talents and also our treasures. We rely on donations and I invite people to go on the website and donate because that is how we move forward but this organization really, we have a three pronged mission. It’s to stop drunk driving, of course, what people know, and the second part is to support the victims of this violent crime and then the third part, which people don’t normally know, is to prevent underage drinking and we have programs and activities in each of these areas so as one of the largest victims services organizations in the United States, which I think many people don’t know, we have over 1,400 trained certified victim advocates across the country but we support drunk and drugged driving victims so you were talking about that marijuana and we want people to know that we support victims of all substance impaired driving and we actually serve one person every eight minutes at no charge and so our goal is to continue to increase the number of victims and survivors we serve and to continually improve the quality of those services and we do that on a local level. You can go on the MADD website and get the phone numbers or the emails of the local MADD and we also have a 24-hour national help line. I love this help line. We launched that several years ago and it is manned 24 hours a day by volunteers, trained victim advocates, who volunteer their time day and night around the country because of course, our trauma isn’t just occurring from nine to five during the day but frequently in the middle of the night and so that phone number is 1-877-MADD HELP and it’s just a wonderful help line with wonderful people. I know many of the volunteers around the country and they’re wonderful people and do wonderful work and then what they do is that they then connect that person the next day with a victim advocate close to them so that they can have the ongoing support and do that physically one on one, you know? And, we’re constantly increasing the numbers. That’s how we measure our success is how many people we’ve served and I think last year, we served over 63,000 people, victims and survivors, so right now, I’m really excited. I just came back from victim services training and we’re working to increase our services to the diverse communities and our underserved populations. For example, in the rural communities, our native American citizens, so we’re constantly working to improve that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Jan, you said you have three years. What year are you in in terms of your tenure over at MADD? JAN WITHERS: I’m in my second year. My second year, yeah. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, what’s it like? You became the President. This is such a story of tragedy leading to triumph and there can be no greater advocate than you. You’ve lived this and you helped reduce the legal limit in terms of what people can drink and you’re a victim’s advocate. What was your goal going into the presidency and what do you think is going to be your biggest achievement in those three years? JAN WITHERS: I’ll tell you what. The thing that I think about as I think about these three years, I really like the expansion of our underage drinking program. A few years ago, we partnered with Doctor Robert Terici, who is a professor at Pennsylvania State University and he has done over 20 years of research on reducing underage drinking and indeed, his research supports what other research says. Do you know that three out of four teenagers say that parents are the number one influence on their decisions about alcohol? We still think we’re powerless against this peer pressure but that’s not the case and what he has done is do research and so we partnered with him and we launched our Power of Parents program and basically, the key to this is talking with our teens in a very positive respectful manner, two way communication, telling them the dangers of it, our expectations that they’re not to do it until after age 21 and indeed, that there are consequences if that is violated but doing it frequently. Very interesting because our kids will roll their eyes and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you told me,’ but it’s still getting in. That’s the point so what we’ve learned is that by doing this, and we have quick course on it. We have the handbook online and we literally are being able to get to a lot of parents around the country and we are successfully now reducing underage drinking, which I think is very, very exciting so that to me is one of the major accomplishments is our Power of Parents program and they again, is to talk positively and frequently with our kids about that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s such an important message that we forget. We forget the influence as adults that we have on our children’s behavior, both good and bad, and I’m so glad you’re saying that and for our listeners out there who just joined, we’re so honored today to have the National President of MADD, MADD.org, Jan Withers on with us and as Jan was saying earlier, if you’re in a crisis and you need their help with their victims’ advocates, it’s 1-877-MADD-HELP and again, it’s MADD.org. Jan, tell us a little bit about you also have some new technology called DADSS. JAN WITHERS: D-A-D-S-S. Don’t you love MADD and DADSS? It cracks me up? JOHN SHEGERIAN: It does so please until I was preparing for this time with you, I never heard of DADSS. Can you please share with our listeners what this means and what this evolution means with regards to your organization? JAN WITHERS: This is the most exciting thing to me in the world because a few years ago, in the early, mid, late 1990s, I was getting frustrated along with everyone else because whatever we did, we were not reducing the number of drunk driving fatalities and injuries across the country and we were working hard and then we went back to the drawing table and looked at all the research and now we totally focus on what research says is the most effective way to do this and so in 2006, we launched our campaign to eliminate drunk. That’s become my favorite word, eliminate. We will see it in our lifetime and so that has a combination of three factors: The first thing is to support high disability law enforcement. We know that the sobriety checkpoints and during the holiday seasons when we have the big advertising campaign, ‘Drive sober or get pulled over,’ we know that that reduces drunk driving by 20%. That’s saving lives right now. The second part is of the campaign to eliminate drunk driving is to require alcohol ignition in our locks for all convicted drunk drivers, not just the high BACs, not just the repeat offenders, but everyone convicted of drunk driving and we know that in states that have that, they’ve reduced their drunk driving fatalities from anywhere in the high 30 percentiles up to over 50%. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Jan, wait a second. For someone who doesn’t know about this kind of stuff, explain this to me. There is technology that exists today that if you’re convicted, this has to be installed in your car and the car can’t start unless you blow? JAN WITHERS: Well said. That’s exactly right. That’s called an alcohol ignition interlock and so that can be required by their sentence to be installed in the vehicle and so they have to blow in it and once they’re convicted, they cannot have any alcohol in their system. It’s a 0.02. This is punitive but what we’ve learned is that the states that have this for all convicted drunk drivers, many of them have cut their fatalities in half so when we started in 2006, one state had it, New Mexico, and we’ve been working hard and now we have it in 20 states as of this year but the key to really eliminating, my new favorite word, drunk driving is advanced technology and that’s a third part of our campaign and that’s Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, DADSS. They have their own website, DADSS, and this is a wonderful technology. I’ve personally been able to see it, touch it. It’s fantastic and so this will be as a passive noninvasive type of technology that we will be able to have in our vehicles that would instantaneously accurately every single time in a nanosecond, because we’re very impatient people and we can’t wait, so in literally a millisecond, not even a second, it will accurately and precisely detect how much alcohol is in the driver’s system and if they’re at the illegal level, the 0.08 or above, this is based on 0.08, our legal limit, then the car won’t function. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second. I, about six months ago, saw this on television and I thought this was Star Wars. JAN WITHERS: It is. It’s cool. It’s great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, tell me this is so important. When is this coming out and how can we encourage our manufacturers to make cars like this sooner rather than later? When is this coming to market? JAN WITHERS: Literally, most of the manufacturers are on board and participating in this. It’s exciting for the Auto Alliance for Highway Safety. They’re part of that alliance and it’s a combination of that along with our government, our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and they are working together for this research and we are going to see this within the next 10 years. The key is that they’re in the second phase of their research now and they’ve narrowed it down to two prototypes and they’re actually being installed, as we talk, into a vehicle to do further testing for all the factors so there are two prototypes. One is touch based and that would be installed either on the start button or on the steering wheel and it will only work for the person sitting in the driver’s seat so that will accurately be able to detect if they’re at or above a 0.08 and the car won’t function. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so cool. JAN WITHERS: Isn’t it? And then the other one is breath based and that would be laser beams throughout the interior of the car, even on the steering wheel, triangulating on the driver and it would as accurately be able to detect how much alcohol is in their system and it wouldn’t function if it was above a 0.08. Amazing stuff. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is great and this is going to help us with so many of the issues you’ve been touching on today; repeat offenders, youth drivers who sometimes don’t have the common sense or developed brains that adults have and things of that such so this is such a leap in technology for the good. JAN WITHERS: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, how do we support this? For our listeners out there that are as amazed as I am and as inspired as I am by what you’re saying, how do we help support this movement with DADSS, DADSS.org? How do we help push this forward? JAN WITHERS: Well, we’re always appreciative of people literally just picking up the phone or getting on the email and sending a note to their legislators and their congress people because their people look at those and they count them and they know what they’re saying so to continue the support because it’s not easy to maintain the support because of finances. It’s that simple in today’s society. It’s great to encourage them to continue supporting this and also, become a volunteer and share your time and your talent and your treasures, your money, with MADD because that is the way we actually move forward is with people’s support. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Jan, you know, let’s take a step back for a minute and just look at some hard data. In 2011, and this is off of your own website that I’ve been through, 9,878 people, despite all the amazing efforts by MADD and all the progress that you’ve pushed in this country and has been adopted in this country, 9,878 people unfortunately, were still killed. JAN WITHERS: Yeah, that’s just amazing and it’s 27 people a day every single day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s beyond. This number is hurting my head. This number is astounding to me. Can you share with our listeners some of the biggest challenges? Even though so much of what you just said today is inspiring, makes common sense, is important and relevant for all of us in this great country and beyond this great country outside, we have listeners outside the world, what are the challenges you’re facing and how can listeners out there that are inspired to be involved and help make a change and inspired by your journey and story help you overcome those challenges? What are the challenges? As President, you have great visibility of what’s going on and the head wins in front and the head wins today. What are the challenges you’re up against? JAN WITHERS: I believe one of the main challenges is that people believe that this issue has been solved, that there’s such awareness now about designated driver and don’t drink and drive, all of our messages, that we really believe in our country that this has been solved and it has definitely not been solved. One life is one life too many and we won’t stop until there are no lives lost to drunk driving and no one else injured by drunk driving but people really do believe that it’s been conquered and it has not. Like you say, 10,000 lives, and so that’s a challenge to me is because I hear that frequently. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a great point, and I think that’s spot on, because honestly, I thought you had fixed it almost and I’m learning so much today and I’m sure that’s for our listeners the same. Keep going. I’m sorry. JAN WITHERS: Oh, that’s really true and that’s important to know and so you know, we do rely on our volunteers and our supporters so people really can go on the website and they can call MADD, 1-877-ASK- MADD. You know, we make it easy and say, ‘I would like to volunteer,’ and there’s all these different avenues that I talked about; preventing underage drinking and providing help to other people who’ve been victimized by impaired driving and working hard to go to our legislators and our congress people and tell them what needs to be done and tell them you expect for them to do that because you vote for them. We need your support. Any way you can possibly help us is extremely important and that is a challenge. All the nonprofits around the country, with a result of the economy, have suffered and certainly MADD is no different and we have suffered as a result of the economy and so we are a grassroots organization and we really ask you to do what you can to support us because we are busy working hard to save lives. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How long ago was the DADSS launched and did that whole game changer come into play? JAN WITHERS: Actually, they launched, I believe eight years ago but you know, I’m not positive on that but really, eight years ago and it really is a game changer. It’s very, very exciting. It really is because no matter what the awareness, and really there’s no excuse today. Everybody in the country knows. We’re bombarded with drive sober or get pulled over and designated driver. We know not to do that and yet, people still do and so this technology is really a hope. It’s going to be the hope like seat belts and airbags and the stabilizers for the vehicles, how they have become a regular part, the anti lock braking system. That’s what I was trying to think of and the seat belts and the airbags. Those things have become so standard and have saved so many lives and so this will too. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you were to guess what will happen when this technology goes in, and you said it’s going to be within 10 years, so let’s just hope that it’s even sooner. Let’s say it’s five years from now. What does that number look like that we talked about earlier from 2011? Does that go in half when this kind of technology goes in? JAN WITHERS: Well, it’s projected when it’s fully implemented that it will save about 8,000 lives a year. That’s what their projection is. That’s a lot of lives so that in combination with the other factors will really make a difference and technology is doing a lot in our vehicles. It’s just amazing what the cars do now that we never even imagines and so this is just the beginning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Jan, I have a strong wife and I have strong daughter and obviously, you are a perfect example of this. I really think that this generation, your generation and beyond, that it’s just become a woman’s world. There’s very few glass ceilings left. Maybe the presidency is the last one and maybe that’s even going to be broken in the near future. Only time will tell but Mothers Against Drunk Driving shows again what the power of committed and amazing people can do together but what happens to dads? Are dads welcome in and is this part of the culture there? Because I’m sure there is many despondent and horrified and saddened and destroyed dads that lose a loved one in this process and are they part of the whole process as well? JAN WITHERS: They are so much a part of it. In fact, our President before last, a good friend of mine, Glenn Birch, was the President and a wonderful man. His little boy baby 3-year-old was killed by a drunk driver, but there are as many men in MADD as there are women and not just dads, but brothers and sisters and friends and people who haven’t been affected personally yet but great organization of everyone. My husband is very, very active with our local MADD and he speaks at the victim impact panels and he’s on our state advisory board for our Maryland MADD and what he says is, “When I go out and speak, I take Alyssa with me.” That’s what he says and I love that and there are so many fathers that are doing just that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We have about two minutes left and I want you to be able to wind up and throw some shameless plugs out there because MADD deserves that but before we get there, can you take us to where you are today? How many children and grandchildren do you have, just so our listeners can hear how your life has evolved? JAN WITHERS: My husband, Joe, and I have five grandchildren and five grandchildren, actually, so our lives have evolved. All of our children are grown and all are married. No, that’s not true. I lied. Listen to me. One is not married, but he is grown up, but anyway, they’re wonderful. We just have wonderful kids and the greatest grandkids and so the oldest grandchild is 23. Be still, my heart, and the youngest is almost 5. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You have a full life, Jan Withers. You have a full life. Okay, so we’re down to a minute. Please give a couple shout-outs for people who want to get involved and join this very important organization. JAN WITHERS: MADD just invited everyone to be involved. Feel free to go on our MADD.org website and find out how you can become involved with MADD and feel free to make a donation on that website but you can volunteer in any way that you want but you know, the most important thing, if I say it a million times, I won’t be saying it enough, is the best way to be safe is to not drink and drive so if your activities are going to include alcohol, make sure you decide before you ever go out, before you ever have that first drink, how you’re going to get home safely with a designated non drinking driver. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Well said. It’s MADD.org and it’s DADSS.org. Jan Withers, it was an honor and privilege to have you on our show today. The world truly needs more true leaders and heroes like you and you are truly living proof that green is good.