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December Is National Drunk And Drugged Driving Prevention Month

By Aaron Crowe

The drunk driver who killed Heather Geronemus’ dad almost five years ago did something that hundreds of anti-drunk driving commercials couldn’t: Get her to lead her local MADD chapter.

As is common in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization, members and leaders often have lost loved ones to drunk driving. For Geronemus, now 34, the death of her dad, Dr. Robert Perry Geronemus, as he walked across a Miami street in January 2009 and was hit by a DUI driver who drove away and was later found, was the impetus for eventually heading the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., MADD chapter.

“There’s no amount of time that will bring my dad back,” she says.

Her work, she hopes, will convince people to not drive drunk, and will save some lives.

3D Month

December is National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month — called 3D Month for short — with the goal of raising awareness about the consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

More than 10,000 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2010 — one every 51 minutes, accounting for nearly a third of all car crash deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drugs other than alcohol, such as marijuana and cocaine, are involved in about 18% of driver deaths, and are often used in combination with alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For survivors and their families, the consequences go beyond the day of the accident. Geronemus, for example, remembers her father daily and vows not to allow his death to be in vain. After being contacted by a MADD volunteer to help her navigate the legal system that the man charged with killing her dad was going through, Geronemus later volunteered and now heads her local chapter.

She established and chaired annual MADD walk and run events in Fort Lauderdale, receiving an award for her fundraising efforts and attempting to raise awareness for the group by not just showing the awful side of drunken driving crashes. The good news about such education, she says, is that there’s an easy solution to the problem.

“It’s not a disease without a cure,” she says. “It’s a problem with a very obvious solution. You just have to educate people about it.”

The obvious solution is to not drink and drive. Have a designated driver, or get a hotel room instead of driving home drunk. Too often, people think they can drive while intoxicated, she says.

“People just don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just sort of a flip thing,” Geronemus says.

Harsher penalties needed

To help people take drunk driving more seriously, harsher penalties are needed for first-time offenders, she says.

People with enough money can pay the $15,000 or so in fines and other costs for a first-time offense, and there needs to be a worse stigma, Geronemus says.

The man who killed her dad pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than the DUI manslaughter he was originally charged with, and was sentenced to six years in prison. Her family didn’t seek a criminal trial or civil lawsuit, partly because they didn’t want to go through the experience, but also because the defendant was an uninsured motorist without a job.

That’s often the case with drunk drivers who kill or injure someone — they don’t have many assets to go after in a civil case, says Tom D’Amore, a personal injury attorney near Portland.

“Most people just don’t have assets to pay up and above policy limits,” D’Amore says of auto insurance coverage.

Once an auto insurance policy is maxed out in payments, it’s a matter of determining if it’s worth it to try to go after a drunk driver’s assets in a civil case trial, D’Amore says. In 99% of such cases, the plaintiffs only recover what’s available in the insurance policy, he says. About 90% of people hit by drunk drivers never get to an attorney because they first hear from insurers and settle immediately, he says.

“These folks generally get off the hook for whatever their insurance policy is,” he says of drunken drivers who hit someone.

Drivers who could get hit by drunk drivers who are unlikely to have more than the minimum amount of insurance required in their state should get coverage for being hit by an uninsured or underinsured motorist, he says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people buy the minimum of uninsured motorist coverage,” D’Amore says, which is more profitable for insurance companies than high-limit policies.

If a civil suit does go to trial, it’s important that the damages are expertly detailed, including symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome suffered by survivors, says Anne Speckhard, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and an expert witness in such cases.

“The expert should be able to articulate these losses well through both written tests and showing the grief and trauma suffered by the family now and what is likely to continue into the future,” Speckhard says.

The impact, as Geronemus can attest to, is daily.

“That person took from me the opportunity of having a great relationship with my dad,” she says.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.