Tough legislation starts to move as a few Christians lobby hard.

Drunk driving accidents claim 26,000 lives each year in the United States—the highest rate per citizen in the world. Until recently, that statistic has remained a neglected fact of life, raising only sporadic concern after a specific tragedy.

But over the past two years, clusters of citizens, often led by the families of crash victims, have demanded tougher laws and more enforcement muscle. In several states, citizens have had encouraging results. After long neglect, Washington is astir about the problem. Congressional legislation is beginning to move, and a presidential commission has been formed.

Perhaps surprisingly, the religious community has been slow to speak. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is determined to reverse that stance. Without endorsing a return to Prohibition, NAE has addressed the issue for more than a year through its Washington Insight newsletters. The organization has been cited favorably by advocates of drunk-driving reform for its effectiveness in generating public awareness.

Evangelicals drink far less than the population at large, according to pollster George Gallup, who has found that two-thirds of them are teetotalers. He has said that “in no other area could the churches of America be of greater help than in dealing head-on with the crisis problems of drinking.”

NAE officials agree, and they have vigorously supported action on several fronts. In Congress, legislation introduced by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.) would require states to enact a baseline set of laws against drunk driving. Hearings are expected in early spring.

Pell began paying attention when two of his staff members were killed by drank drivers in separate accidents. The bills (S-671 and HR-2488) would, he said, “create certainty that even a first offense will bring down real and unpleasant sanctions,” including:

• At least 10 days of community service for a first offense, and 10 days in jail for people convicted two or more times within five years.

• Restriction of licenses for first-time offenders to essential or work-related travel, and issuance of special, identifiable marker plates.

• A requirement for states to identify repeat offenders and require judges to determine if an offender needs treatment for alcoholism.

A spokesman for the senator praised NAE, saying Insight items have “generated a tremendous amount of mail.” NAE also lobbied hard for President Reagan’s new task force on drunk driving, which will publicize the problem and urge governors to make accident prevention a top priority.

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Prevention at the state and local levels is the most important, yet it is often hamstrung due to politics. William Plymat, executive director of the American Council on Alcohol Problems, explains that “police are often reluctant to arrest drinking drivers because they feel the courts will not do justice to the cases. In most states, we have inadequate laws which are vague and indefinite. Often charges are reduced to reckless driving. Often bail is set at a low figure and the driver is back on the street, quickly drinking and driving again.”

Local citizen movements to turn the tide have produced two major organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID). In Maryland, MADD directors Tom and Dorothy Sexton lost a teen-aged son who was returning from a fishing trip in July 1980. He was riding in a car that was smashed head-on by a drunk with over twice the amount of alcohol in his blood that is necessary for qualification as legal drunkenness. The Sexton boy was killed instantly. The drunk driver received a $200 fine and two years’ probation.

Tom Sexton, deeply angered by the court’s leniency, said, “It takes local involvement. Fear of arrest by local police has a tremendous impact—that’s what is needed.” Due to change in citizen attitudes, a Maryland judge recently meted out a sentence of five years in prison for a drunk driver charged with manslaughter.

The Sexton’s local MADD chapter has organized lobbying efforts on behalf of establishment of county task forces, alcohol awareness programs, and counseling help to bereaved families on their rights in criminal proceedings. Another important function is court monitoring to determine which judges are excessively lenient and to bring it to the attention of the news media.

Most people who are stopped or arrested for driving while drunk are hard drinkers, not social drinkers or wine-with-dinner advocates. Instead, fully 60 percent have severe alcohol dependencies, according to the National Association of Alcoholism Counselors.

In most states, a person is legally drunk when the blood alcohol concentration registers one-tenth of 1 percent. To reach that level, a 160-pound man would have to consume five drinks in the course of an hour. And the average person arrested is at twice the legal limit, says John Moulden, drunk-driving program specialist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Richard Cizik, a researcher for NAE, hopes to see compassionate evangelical involvement, because drunk driving is “a needless form of violence,” he said. “It’s as unfortunate as national crime statistics, and it is preventable. Christians need to demonstrate the value of life based on clearly discernible principles.”

For starters, he suggests a church group could address the issue by educating teen-agers and supporting community efforts. Cizik also says Christians should not hesitate to participate in court monitoring, petitioning, and letter writing to hold enforcement officials accountable for their actions.

For guidance in establishing a local task force, a manual commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is available free of charge from Sandy Golden, 21 Quince Mill Court, Gaithersburg, Maryland 20760. It is entitled “How to Save Lives and Reduce Injuries: A Citizen Activist Guide to Effectively Fight Drunk Driving.” Information also can be obtained from Tom Sexton, 3113 Tinder Place, Bowie, Maryland 20715.

Tragedies Often Are The Sparks That Ignite Action Against Drunks

Christmas Eve 1981 is a night seared into pastor Loren Gisselbeck’s memory, and his throat tightens as he describes it. Just before a holiday program at his United Methodist church in rural Westminster, Maryland, Gisselbeck answered his phone and learned that two children and three grandchildren of his education director were dead following a car crash caused by an intoxicated driver.

The education director, Martha Proctor, had planned and organized the special Christmas Eve program, “Journey to Bethlehem.” But as it was performed that evening, she lay in a hospital with a skull fracture. Her daughter suffered multiple bone fractures and a lacerated liver. Two sons, 23 and 14, were dead, along with her baby grandchildren, ages 3, 2, and one month.

Gisselbeck hurried from his church to spend the evening with Martha’s husband, Richard, a former missionary. The pastor returned in time for his 11 P.M. service, and as he quietly broke the news, he heard “just one big gasp” from his congregation of 500.

“I knew we had to do something,” he said, so he called a community meeting. The mid-January gathering attracted more than 200 people, including state legislators, prosecutors, county commissioners, state police, and representatives from locally active groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). They established a local task force, patterned after successful efforts in two other Maryland counties and manned by a cross section of people who work with drunk drivers and their victims.

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The duties of the task force are clear-cut:

• Document how the county handles drunk drivers from arrest through prosecution.

• Identify flaws in the system and determine how to correct them.

• Monitor courtroom decisions to see which judges are lenient and which are strict.

• Obtain wide news media coverage of drunk-driving offenses.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., a similar effort began two years ago after a head-on, drunk-driving crash paralyzed infant Laura Lamb for life. Now “we have some of the finest law enforcement in the nation and some of the toughest prosecution, with a 95 percent conviction rate,” says Sandy Golden. He is a volunteer activist who abandoned his television journalism career after the Lamb incident in order to devote full time to anti-drunk-driving work. He said the efforts have succeeded in spite of lax laws.

One response to citizen lobbying efforts in Montgomery County is a series of police roadblocks on weekends, instilling, according to Golden, “a general fear of arrest.” Though the strategy has been condemned by the American Civil Liberties Union, most drivers who are stopped at the roadblocks for a brief sobriety check profusely thank the policemen on duty. There is no discrimination; everyone is stopped. Consistent news coverage throughout the state and in neighboring Washington, D.C., also has heightened public awareness.

Elsewhere, similar tragedies, which seem to be a prerequisite of lasting reform, have also sparked citizen initiatives. California officials reported a 43 percent drop in traffic deaths over the New Year’s holiday this year because of a new package of laws requiring a 48-hour jail sentence except for minor first offenses. In those cases, a judge could substitute a fine, a 90-day license suspension, and require attendance at a drinking drivers’ school. In addition, a mandatory minimum fine of $375 for each conviction is in effect, with $20 of that placed in a victims’ indemnity fund.

Similar treatment awaits drunk drivers in Maine, following a tough set of laws passed last fall. In Minnesota, authorities may suspend a driver’s license without a hearing upon arrest for intoxication.

According to John Moulden of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, New York passed some of the most significant legislation last year. Mandated jail sentences of 7 to 180 days and fines ranging between $200 and $500 are in effect for proven repeat offenders, who cause a major portion of all alcohol-related traffic incidents. Moulden praised New York officials for recognizing that “it’s not just a one-shot crackdown on New Year’s Eve. What the issue needs is applied effort.”

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The Proctor family tragedy in Maryland spurred Gisselbeck to apply his efforts against drunk driving, yet his attitude is compassionate, not vindictive.

“I have another member, a 19-year-old,” he explains, “going on trial for drunk-driving homicide. I called on him in the hospital after he killed a girl. From the standpoint of what this does to people, whether they are victims or perpetrators, we’ve got to be concerned.”

Black Evangelist Named To Civil Rights Commission

B. Sam Hart of Philadelphia, 50-year-old black evangelist and radio station owner, was named a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission last month by President Reagan.

Hart said he was first sounded out by White House staff members about accepting the chairmanship of the five-member commission to replace 76-year-old Arthur S. Flemming, a liberal Republican and vigorous civil rights advocate, who was fired by Reagan in November. But Hart explained the long hours required by the job “would have taken me away from my ministry.” He explained, “I serve the Lord first, my country second.”

The president has since nominated for the commission chairmanship Clarence M. Pendleton, 51, black conservative Republican from San Diego, who has opposed busing to promote school integration, expressed skepticism about the value of affirmative action, and has taken the stand that he feels free enterprise is the best cure for economic hardship among blacks.

It is widely known in government circles that administration officials have become annoyed by the commission’s advocacy of a strong federal role in school desegregation, affirmative action to open more jobs to minorities and women, and denials of tax exemption to schools that allegedly discrimate against blacks.

The Reagan administration has been reversing earlier government positions in all these areas and evoked criticism from the commission, which advises the President and Congress on civil rights policy and monitors the enforcement of civil rights laws.

Hart’s appointment drew fire from liberal black activists, who complained that he had never been involved in the civil rights movement. The opposition was so intense that both senators from Pennsylvania, Republicans John Heinz and Arlen Specter, asked that ratification procedures be held up.

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Hart was born in Harlem in 1931 but grew up in Jamaica, where his father, Arthur, served as a Plymouth Brethren missionary. Settling in Philadelphia, Sam taught retarded children in the public school system before resigning in 1968 to devote himself full-time to the gospel ministry.

In 1977 Hart was able to obtain a low interest loan of $176,000 through the Pennsylvania Minority Business Development Authority to build WYIS, an AM radio station in suburban Phoenixville. WYIS broadcasts black gospel music, Bible instruction, and call-in talk shows. Hart describes his widely syndicated “Grand Old Gospel Hour” as “the largest black-produced evangelistic program in the world.” The sponsoring organization for his multifaceted ministry also has started 12 churches on the East Coast, 5 in the Philadelphia area.

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