When Joshua Clark’s parents arrived at Sparrow Hospital, the first person they talked to was a pastor. It wasn’t a reassuring sign – their son had been hit by a drunken driver so hard that although he was driving, police found him on the passenger-side floor.
“I was in a coma for the next month,” Clark, 29, said. “Each day was different. Many good days, but more bad days, to where doctors told my parents, ‘You’d better get the rest of your family here because he’s not gonna be making it that much longer.’”
Clark, who graduated from MSU in 2007, spoke Dec. 6 at the fourth annual Survivor’s Forum, an event sponsored by Spartans Against Drunk Driving.
Marissa Cann, the president of Spartans Against Drunk Driving said this is an issue that is particularly important on college campuses.
“I think a lot of college students are in the mindset where they think ‘I’m invincible, nothing can hurt me, oh I’ll be fine,’ that sort of mindset,” Cann said. “And it’s sad, because when you have that mindset people are gonna get behind the wheel when they shouldn’t be and we all know what kinds of things can happen from that.”
Spartans Against Drunk Driving Treasurer Kelly Kaye agreed. She said there are always excerptions to the rule, but in her experience most college students don’t take drunken driving seriously.
“I gave a speech in my communications class about how statistics show that lowering the drinking age to 18 increases the rate of drunk driving, and everyone was booing me,” Kaye said. “That’s not taking it seriously.”
East Lansing Mayor Vic Loomis, who was the keynote speaker at the forum, said the city of East Lansing, at least, is giving the issue of drunken driving the respect it deserves.
“I can’t think of anything that disturbs me more in this city,” Loomis said. “I firmly believe and have committed a large amount of my time as your mayor in working in the area of public safety.”
Loomis added that the number of drunken driving arrests is currently at a 19-year high, something that could be both positive and negative. It may mean there are more drunken drivers on the road or it may mean that police are doing a better job of catching drunken drivers, or it could be a combination of both factors.
Whatever the case may be, East Lansing Police Officer Steve Gonzalez said that he has personally seen a large reduction in the number of drunken driving arrests he has to make.
“Back when I started, 12 years ago, 2:00 in the morning, you could make a traffic stop for anything, anywhere in this city or on campus and you could be guaranteed it was a drunk driver,” Gonzalez said. “I mean, it was a dime a dozen. If you had the next few days off and you didn’t want to get tied up on a drunk driving arrest, you didn’t make a traffic stop because you knew it was going to be a drunk. Nowadays, I can make 12 stops in one night and not find a drunk driver.”
Gonzalez, along with Mayor Loomis, attributed this development to the fact that it is no longer socially acceptable to drive while intoxicated, as it was in the past. The addition of efforts from groups like Spartans Against Drunk Driving make a difference too.
Still, the police officers present at the forum stressed that they continue to see drunken drivers every day. Furthermore, many of the arrests they make aren’t drivers who are simply tipsy; they’re drivers who have been drinking to excess.
“Last night, I asked [a drunken driver], ‘Can you recite the English alphabet from the letter A through the letter T?’” MSU Police Officer Mike Cantrell said. “He goes, ‘A, E,G’ and looks at me…The legal limit for alcohol to be in your system is 0.08. He was a 0.26.”
Officers also repeatedly said drunken driving accidents can happen to anybody. East Lansing Police Officer Steve Whelan talked of his nephew, who celebrated New Year’s Eve, went to bed at 4 a.m. and got up five hours later at 9 a.m., ate breakfast, showered then drove home.
“The problem is, driving back home, he left the highway onto the exit ramp and rear-ended the car in front of him,” Whelan said. “All of a sudden the police officer shows up at the accident and he is a 0.15. He said he felt 100 percent sober.”
LCC student Hannah Marks attended the forum and agreed that even good people can make bad decisions. Marks, 20, has a friend whose older brother, a father to a newborn baby, died in an alcohol-related accident.
“He was driving alone home, driving drunk and wrapped his car around a tree and died,” Marks said. “And he was really close with his family, sweetest guy in the world, and it just tore the whole town apart.”
The effect drunken driving has on families and community members was also emphasized at the forum.“It’s not just the person who is driving the vehicle or the person that they hit, but it’s all the rest of us,” Loomis said. “It’s the family members who suffer.”
Loomis went on to praise the work of Spartans Against Drunk Driving for their activism in the community.
“If your work as Spartans Against Drunk Driving saves one life, just one life, your time has been well spent,” Loomis said. “It’s been very well spent.”