Posted on 25 November 2014.
The courtroom at the Wise County Jail was almost full last Wednesday. A few people sat together – two girls who looked like they were still in high school, a married couple – but most tried to get a little space around them.
They weren’t here to socialize. They were here because they had been arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI).
VICTIM’S IMPACT CLASS – Ray Carter, Meredith Overbeck and Steve Collier conduct a Victim’s Impact Class in Decatur as part of the probation process for drunk-driving offenders. The class is sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Overbeck works in the Wise County Adult Probation office while Carter and Collier are speakers. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
The two-hour Victim Impact Panel, sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), is required of first-time DWI offenders in Wise County. If they complete it within 90 days, they can avoid having their driver’s licenses suspended.
That’s a very real incentive.
In fact, the entire evening is very, very real.
The people – all ages, all walks of life – file in, fill out a form for Meredith Overbeck of the Wise County Adult Probation Office and take their seats. On the wall at the side of the room, a slide show is playing, showing people killed or injured by drunk drivers.
I was a little shocked to see an old friend’s photo flash up there.
Larry Thompson, a retired hospital administrator, died in February 2010 when an intoxicated driver hit him on Robertson Road near Eagle Mountain Lake. He was on his way home from a community theater production in Azle.
A 34-year-old Arlington man pleaded guity to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Wednesday night, speakers Ray Carter and Steve Collier were there to do what they could to keep the audience members from being on either side of that equation – losing a friend or loved one, or doing prison time for taking someone’s life.
It’s hard not to use the word “sobering” when describing the program, although Carter and Collier both found moments of laughter as they told their stories.
RAY CARTER’S STORY
Carter started out with an introduction of MADD, and a barrage of statistics.
- Two out of every three Americans will be impacted by a drunk-driving crash at some point in their lives.
- 21,600 people every month are injured in alcohol-related crashes.
- 28 people die every day in a DWI accident.
- Drunk driving costs the U.S. $199 billion a year.
- In Texas, more than 1,300 people die in alcohol-related crashes each year – more than three each day.
- A drunk driver typically drives drunk 88 times before they get their first DWI ticket.
Carter first told the story of his grandson, and the DWI accident that didn’t get him involved with MADD.
A state champion high school pole vaulter as a junior, he and some friends were hit by a drunk driver a week after the regional track meet. The young man’s arm was broken in two places.
“That instant, his senior year, all the college scholarship offers – that was gone,” he said. Two other boys in the car were even more severely injured, including one a paraplegic.
“The gentleman who ruined their lives plea-bargained 38 years in the penitentiary,” he said.
Then he moved on to the reason he now speaks to 500 to 1,000 people each month, volunteering for MADD.
“I lost my best friend, my business partner, my brother in the motorcycle club – I lost my only son to a drunk driver,” he said. “My world changed. My wife says I changed, that I’ve never been like I was before.”
Carter’s son, Randy, had gone to Austin for a biker rally and was heading down MLK Boulevard with a passenger seated behind him. He stopped at a red light, then got a green protected arrow to make a left turn.
The Travis County Medical Examiner’s office said he never knew what hit him. His passenger was severely injured, but survived.
The drunk driver had a blood-alcohol content two-and-a-half times the legal limit. He also had marijuana and cocaine in his system.
The 31-year-old man was an employee of the city of Austin, married, with three kids. He lost his job and had to mow yards to try and make a living.
Carter fought to get him probation so that his wife and kids did not suffer. He even paid for his ankle monitor. But the man violated the terms of his probation and is serving eight years in prison.
Carter and his biker friends fixed up a trailer and strapped Randy’s casket to it for the procession to the cemetery.
“I took my son to his grave,” he said, his voice breaking. “I go visit that grave at least once a month. I go to Austin four or five times a year to visit where he got killed. I cry every day. I think about it all the time.”
He encouraged his listeners to think about the people in their lives who mean that much to them.
“I ask you to make good choices, to think about this,” he said. “That’s why I come here.”
STEVE COLLIER’S STORY
The next speaker is also a motorcycle guy – a big man with no hair on his head, but a beard halfway down his chest.
Steve Collier has a twinkle in his eye and clearly enjoys a good laugh. He brings humor into his presentation as he talks about his small high school class, his family and himself.
A slide goes up of a nice-looking middle-aged couple at a banquet, formally dressed. In the next slide, they’re in full biker gear, out in a roadside park in Colorado. They looked happy in both pictures but obviously more at home on the bikes.
Collier said his mom rode with his dad for about six months before she got her own bike, a Harley Ultraglide. At 5-feet, 2-inches and 130 pounds, she maneuvered the 1,000-pound motorcycle with ease.
The first thing she bought to put on it was a “Ride to live and live to ride” air filter cover.
His delivery slows down when he talks about losing her.
“You remember where you were on 9/11, when the planes hit the buildings?” he asks. Then he describes learning of his mom’s wreck on an August Friday afternoon – when a drunk driver in Oklahoma swerved into a group of five motorcycles, eight people, killing three of them.
“You got those people in this world that you’d trade your life for?” he asked. “That you’d trade your life – no questions, take me, I’m out? I’ve got three of them. I’d give it up right this second.”
His dad, he said, would have given his life in an instant for his wife of 40 years.
Oklahoma state troopers spent 36 hours at the scene, Collier said, measuring and weighing until they could computer-animate the accident.
It occurred at 3:30 p.m. when the group of bikers spotted the car swerving. The first bike just got clipped and didn’t go down, but Collier’s mom, on the second bike, was hit by the passenger-side headlight. With both vehicles going about 70 mph, it was about a 140-mph collision.
She was completely over on the shoulder when the car hit her.
The next bike was Collier’s dad, and he laid it down, avoiding the collision but sustaining fairly serious injuries as he hit the ditch. The two people on the next bike both died, hitting the passenger side of the car full-force.
Collier talked about forgiveness, about making funeral arrangements and the procession. He described the roadside crosses, seeing the bike and salvaging that air filter cover, which his son has put in a shadow box that he takes with him when he makes presentations for MADD.
“Four people lost their lives,” he said. “The fourth person wasn’t killed, but they lost their life, too.”
The drunk driver plea-bargained for three concurrent life sentences. Under Oklahoma law, they will serve 38 years and three months before they are eligible for parole. Collier’s 19-year-old son will be 55.
He closes the presentation with a slide of his mom’s tombstone, on a hill in an Oklahoma cemetery.
“I tell you this whole story to ask you the question,” he said. “Remember that person you thought of earlier, that you’d give your life for? The kids? Your spouse? Put their name up there where my mom’s name is, on that stone.”
Then he pauses.
“Put that person’s name up there where my mom’s name is, and then put your feet up here in my boots, and think what you’d say to you.
“What would you say to you, to keep from doing the thing that got you here in the first place – driving while you’re impaired? What would keep you from taking those keys and putting them in the ignition and doing it again?”
The only sound in the room is a sniff or two, as he draws his talk to its conclusion. It’s anything but preachy.
“What would you say to you, to keep from putting that person’s name that you love the most on that stone where my mom’s name is?”
Then he sits down. The people in the chairs had a survey to take before they left. Most left quietly, although a few came up to thank Collier and Carter for sharing their stories.
MADD estimates they’ve saved more than 300,000 lives since they started their campaign against drunk driving. These programs for first-time offenders may be the most effective.
The supply, however, does not seem to be diminishing.