Jan Withers lost her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy, when she was killed by an underage drunk driver–something Withers says is a 100% preventable violent crime. And while the campaign for not drinking and driving is stronger than ever now, one in three people are still involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime. To find out more, we talked with Withers, who is now the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) about how the tragic experience of losing her daughter changed her outlook on drinking in our society.
How did this accident make you feel about alcohol and drinking in our society?
It wasn’t necessarily about the drinking. It was about the driving after the drinking. I never really thought about it much before that, honestly. I was always careful. My late husband was a pilot in the air force so I was exposed to it a great deal. I wasn’t a person who drank a lot, but I was in that environment where people drank a lot. But we always made sure that one of us was always sober to drive, and that was before all of the focus on drinking and driving. After the crash, I didn’t want alcohol anymore. I just didn’t want it. On a rare occasion, I’ll have a glass of wine, but for the most part, it just doesn’t appeal to me anymore.
What happened to the driver who killed your daughter?
First of all, it distressed me that some people felt sorry for the driver–he’s going to have to live with this for the rest of his life, they would say. I was very angry, and he didn’t show any remorse. He was 17 and underage on spring vacation. My daughter was spending the night at a friend’s house, and they got into the car to go to the go-kart track with the boys. What they didn’t know was that the guys had been drinking. They continued to drink, just the boys, but Alisa didn’t let the girls drink. I had talked to my kids about this before and even made them sign a contract that they would call me if they ever found themselves in a situation where they were in danger, but she didn’t call that night. One of her friends who was also in the car and survived said she saw the speedometer hit 120 mph. He just lost control of the car.
How have your thoughts about drinking changed as a result of what happened to you?
My husband and I rarely drink. My kids (youngest is 31 now) drink in moderation and are always very aware of drinking and driving. I watched them do this. To me, alcohol is not necessary to have a good time. But that’s not really my issue. My issue is, if you’re going to do that, don’t put others in danger. It’s a definitely decision. People say it could happen to anybody, but that’s not true. We all know the dangers now. As a matter of fact, research tells us that the first time someone gets caught drinking and driving they have done so 80 times. There is an attitude that says, “We do it because we can.” There are over 10,000 deaths a year. And they are all preventable.
A lot of people have various theories on whether drinking should be legal younger, like in Europe. How do you feel about that, given proper education to teens?
We know for sure that the 21 minimum drinking age saves about 1,000 lives a year. It significantly reduced the deaths related to underage drinking. Also, alcohol really has a negative effect on the brain as it’s developing, and we know our brains don’t stop developing until age 25, so I’m very much in favor of keeping the 21 drinking age. These families who say we should offer alcohol earlier so our kids learn how to drink responsibly, are wrong. I wouldn’t offer my kids pot or another drug so they learn how to do drugs properly. I don’t think that’s responsible. In Europe, they actually have more problems than we do. It’s not what we think over there.
Do you equate alcohol to pot or other drugs then?
No, I don’t equate it to that, but it is a drug.
What can mothers do to positively or negatively affect this then?
Research shows that scaring kids (like they do at some school presentations) is not effective in reducing underage drinking. It last for a month or two, but only that long. What we have learned is the most effective thing to reduce drinking and driving is the parents’ influence. If we have ongoing communication in a positive way, not in an authoritarian way, that works. We can say things like, “So have you found yourself in a situation where your friends are drinking? How do you feel about that? This is how we feel about it, etc.” This frequent communication can actually reduce underage drinking by 30%.
Our behavior is also important. Kids are watching us all the time. Having a glass of wine with dinner is OK because you are modeling that you are over 21 and drinking responsibly. But if the whole family is out to dinner and the parents want to have a drink, one of them needs to make it known that they are not drinking because they are driving.
Do you think our society’s attitude towards casual drinking encourages unhealthy drinking more?
We are very casual about it, and we have been forever. In other countries, they may seem casual about drunk driving, but they’re not. And they have fewer problems. They have a lower legal limit, and you just don’t drink and drive over there. The consequences are severe. They really get the message out about alcohol and its potential dangers. And when it comes to our kids, we need to be honest with them. Even when they ask if we have ever been drunk or gotten behind the wheel after drinking. It’s important to tell them, “I made a mistake, we know more now. But I don’t want that for you.”