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Shattered lives

Program helps drunken drivers relate to pain they inflict

(Published August 13, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer



Joan Corboy, right, and Lisa Bass discuss some of the victims of drunken driving accidents in the District of Columbia. Bass often speaks to group’s like Corboy’s about the pain inflicted on her family when a drunken driver killed her mother and aunt.

Joan Corboy considers herself lucky.

Corboy has spent 19 years volunteering around the country, campaigning to get drunken drivers off the streets, even though she has never lost a family member to an alcohol-related accident.

"I have been lucky so far no one in my family has been killed by a drunk driver," Corboy said.

However, some are not as lucky. Nationwide, 16,000 people died in drunken driving related accidents last year. But through organizations such as Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), which Corboy helped initiate here about six years ago, more than 4,000 drunken drivers have heard firsthand how they can shatter lives when they decide to drink and drive.

RID, a nationwide advocacy group, brings in speakers, who have been victimized by a drunken driver’s negligence, to talk to people who have received citations for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI).

Corboy, who lives in Northeast Washington’s Brookland neighborhood, coordinated the RID program in Hagerstown, Md., before bringing it to the District in 1995.

Retaining speakers for meetings, which usually take place a couple of times a month, is a tough task, Corboy said.

"Drunk driving is a powerful weapon," she said. "It is hard for people to talk about losing a loved one more than once, and some don’t come back."

One family member of a victim, Lisa Bass, has spoken to a number of groups over the years.

At a recent RID meeting, held five months before the 10th anniversary of her mother and aunt dying in an alcohol-related accident, Bass recalled the fatal day vividly to listeners.

"Two policemen knocked on the door," she said. "One did not even face me. The other told me there had been an accident and gave me my mother’s license. I knew that if my mother was not dead, then she was critically injured."

The drunken driver, a former inmate, killed Bass’ mother and aunt while driving a stolen car during a high-speed police chase. Bass explained that she had to write a victim impact statement at the trial to help the judge determine the amount of damage the crime had done.

"I wrote that my children would not get to know their grandmother," Bass said. "That was the greatest damage of all."

The driver was sentenced to 15 concurrent years in prison for both deaths.

"When I heard him say he was sorry, the tears started to roll down my face," Bass said, choking back tears of her own.

"It is hard for people to tell their story when loss occurs," said Gregory Harrison, supervisory community supervision officer in the Traffic Alcohol Program of the Court Services and Defender Supervision Agency. "Mrs. Bass lost someone she cannot get back. Reliving that story over and over again has to be a nightmare."

Police officers who respond to alcohol-related accidents sometimes must deal with psychological trauma as well, as Detective Elgin Wheeler told the recent RID gathering. Wheeler, a member of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Motor Vehicles Unit, recalled one of his most horrific experiences while dealing with drunken driving accidents.

Wheeler showed the group pictures of an accident he responded to on a rainy night July 21, 1999. An indescribable car rests on the corner of South Capitol Street SE, 40 feet below an Interstate 395 overpass. The pictures passed around become progressively worse until the members of the class realized the body of a young lady sitting right next to the car is decapitated, her head severed by the guardrail dangling above.

"This is gross," one member of the group said in disgust.

"That’s not her body is it?" another group member asked.

The head, Wheeler continued, was found 40 feet away from the car, and he spared his audience no mercy by showing more graphic pictures of the body part.

"The young lady was guilty of having bad company," he said, referring to the driver of the car, the woman’s intoxicated boyfriend. Both occupants were thrown from the vehicle, but the man survived with brain damage.

Each year, 60 to 70 traffic homicides occur in the District, half of which are alcohol related. When it is time to notify the victims’ next-of-kin, Wheeler is the man who gets the job. He has been knocking on doors for 12 years and said the hardest thing to do is telling relatives the news they do not want to hear – they’ve lost a loved one in a car accident.

"The first thing a parent asks is, "Are they OK?" Wheeler said. "I tell them the accident was fatal, but they still do not get it. I tell them they are dead, give them my card and walk away."

Some of the listeners at the RID meeting remained unconvinced. A woman who came along with one of the offenders spoke up: "It is permissible to have one beer and drive, right?"

"No. It is illegal to drink and drive," Harrison told the group.

"People, you know it is against the law to drink and drive," Harrison said, using a lecturing tone. "Drink inside of your own house. Know where you are – not what your limit is. This message today was powerful. For an hour and a half all of you were here and not out drinking and driving. Now in the next 22½ hours, keep the same mindset."

The drunken drivers have to attend the RID meeting only once as part of their probation requirements, but most are getting the message, Harrison said.

"Tonight was a very strong message," he said. "People are coming up to me and saying, ‘I don’t want to drink anymore.’

"We have to do more to preserve lives, not just one life," Harrison said. "Mrs. Corboy is a godsend. She gets dedicated speakers who are passionate about getting the message across. Being passionate is what it is all about."