July 16, 2020

Reliving a tragedy behind the wheel

People die every day. It’s probably some sad sign of our times that hearing about the deaths of total strangers can become routine and unremarkable. But every now and then, an extinguished life is mentioned that makes you pause, sit down on the corner of your bed, and instantly grieve.

This week Fredia Ann Veitch died. As Fredia drove home from work another car ran through a traffic light and slammed into hers. It is alleged that alcohol was involved. She left behind a husband and two young children.

That news makes me so sad: Sadder than I can express and maybe sadder than you can understand, unless of course you too have driven a vehicle under the influence. There’s an awful feeling in the pit of your stomach that churns and knots you all up when you think that if fate had dealt you a different hand your reckless actions might have killed someone – that you actually could have taken a life instead of just screwing up your own.

I watched a news anchor interview Fredia’s husband. The news program showed pictures of her little kids. Sitting and watching the tragedy unfold as a person who has in the past gotten behind the wheel at the wrong time – I couldn’t even feel grateful that it wasn’t me that killed her – because it could have been. And either way, because of actions similar to my own, she’s dead.

I mean really, if a bunch of us load a gun does it actually matter which bullet did the killing?

See, on May 16, 1997, I was arrested in my apartment parking lot by a police officer who followed me home. Arrogant, like most folks who drive impaired, I drove through town rather than take the exit right next to my apartment – but my judgment was faulty. After all I’d been drinking.

In court a few days later I pleaded guilty to the charge of operating under the influence and got sentenced to four days in jail, a substantial fine and community service. I lost my job. I lost my license. I had to tell my kids and my mom what I had done, while the news organizations told the rest of the community.

According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 159 million cases of drunken driving occurred in the year of my arrest. Only a tiny fraction of us were caught. Some of us were well known but even our public humiliation didn’t stop folks from following in our footsteps.

Maybe it’s because we don’t speak out enough.

See, every political or career adviser I’ve had has told me never to talk about the incident. But if every one of us who got ourselves in that situation spoke out, maybe other folks would make better choices. Maybe we could explain the damage it did to our careers and our families.

The problem with high-profile folks rehabilitating their images and never talking about drunken driving again is that it ends up looking like “no big deal.” But Fredia’s husband and kids know that it’s a gargantuan deal.

So here’s what I’ve always wanted to say but was told not to say.

Every time you go out for a drink have a plan. Every time.

We don’t have zero tolerance laws, so drinking and driving isn’t illegal, drinking too much and driving is. The wrong time to assess if you’ve had too much to drink is when you are drinking. Decide in advance what you will drink and what your limits are. And if you exceed those limits, have planned in advance a way home or which couch you’ll sleep on. Every time you think a cab is expensive think of a $2,000 fine. Every time you think spending the night at a friend’s house is an imposition to your friend, think of waking him or her an hour later to post bail. Hotel rooms are better than jail cells and just staying home is drastically better than attending a funeral.

And carry a picture of Fredia Ann Veitch on your key chain – and look her in the eye before you drive.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be contacted at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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