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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Monday, May 21, 2007

How many deaths will it take?

My blog has been pretty light-hearted so far, but not today.

If you read our print edition or Web site this morning, you know that an 18-year-old has been charged with drunk driving in a car accident before dawn Saturday in Woodstock that left a 19-year-old dead. It's not my role, or that of any newspaper, to pass judgment on the suspect. That's what the criminal justice system is for. And the district attorney notes the arrest was based merely on observations at the scene; that blood tests still could prove the suspect didn't break the law. So we'll wait and see how this plays out. But as we enter high school prom and graduation season, the time of year when far too many young people across the country are injured or killed in car accidents, it's worth repeating the age-old anti-DWI mantra: If you drink, don't drive; if you drive, don't drink. Yeah, I know, it's corny, cliched and simplistic. But it makes so much sense. And if everyone lived by it, the number of drunk-driving arrests, injuries and deaths in our society would fall to zero.

My passion about this subject is twofold:

First and foremost, I have a teenage son. He's only 13, but he'll be a passenger in some other teen's car within a year or two, and he'll be driving in three years. It's not too early to start pressing the "don't drink and drive" message, and my wife and I already have told him it would be better for him to call us for a ride at 2 a.m. than to get behind the wheel drunk or get into a car being driven by a friend who's been drinking. We'll remind him again next year, and the next, and the next. Whatever it takes to keep him safe.

To understand the other part of my passion, you need to know only three names: Julie Brown, Ruth Yudelson and Debbie Chesler. We grew up in the same town outside of Rochester. Julie was dead at 16, Ruth at 14, Debbie at 19. Debbie, in her car, and Ruth, on foot, were killed by drunk drivers; Julie, also a pedestrian, was killed by a hit-and-run driver believed to be drunk but never caught. These girls should be grown women now, perhaps married with teenage children of their own to worry about, but stupidity -- irresponsible, criminal stupidity -- denied them the opportunity.

We can't bring back Julie, Ruth and Debbie, or anyone else killed by a drunk driver. But we can -- and we must -- do everything in our power to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.

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Blogger Nancy Hall said...

A recent college graduate, I have seen too many people die as a result of alcohol-related accidents. In addition to seeing so many very young lives taken, two family members of mine were killed before I was even born by a drunk driver. It's devastating to see. No doubt, your blog entry title eluded to the Bob Dylan song, Blowin' in the Wind:

"Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind."

How many, indeed...

May 21, 2007 at 3:50 PM 
Blogger Carol Maltby said...

Tragedies like this affect not just the immediate families and friends. The fabric of a community is ripped apart, and the pain can last a lifetime.

Was there a nuance in the 5/21 article on the basis of the DWI charge, that having "observations" in quotes was meant to convey?

May 22, 2007 at 1:54 PM 
Blogger David in DC said...

I remember all three deaths.

And the others critically injured when Ruth died.

Thanks for putting this out there, Jeremy.

May 22, 2007 at 3:05 PM 
Blogger Reb Yudel said...

Hi. I'm very touched to see that my sister is still remembered.

If I can put on my editor's hat for a minute, though, allow me to suggest a direction for your paper to investigate. As you remember, New York State raised its drinking age not too many years after Ruth, Pam and Erica were killed. And I recalled being rather upset, because they were killed by a 32-year-old drunk driver, not by "underage drinking." To be honest, I drank a bit myself before turning 18 -- and I came to believe very strongly that underage drinking doesn't kill people, drunk driving kills people.

Now, with an 18-year-old getting ready to head off for college and working on getting her driver's license, I'm bothered by the excessive attention being paid to illegal drinking at the expense of unsafe drinking and unsafe driving. My 13-year-old has graduated from a DARE program where he apparently pledged to avoid "illegal drugs and alcohol." I would really much rather that they learn real facts: namely, that alcohol impairs judgement, reaction time, and even unconscious physical activities such as the amount of time it takes one's eyes to readjust from the glare of an oncoming headlight. (It was that, along with the speeding, that killed Ruth.) I worry that combining the factual message with the moralistic message may perhaps reduce some drinking -- but also makes those kids who drink less likely to do so safely. Now, I might be wrong in worrying about this... but it certainly seems like an interesting area for a newspaper to explore.

June 20, 2007 at 4:48 PM 
Blogger Jeremy Schiffres, City Editor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 21, 2007 at 8:44 AM 
Blogger Jeremy Schiffres, City Editor said...

To Reb Yudel:
Thanks for your kind words and your perspectives on drinking and driving. I remember you writing to the Rochester D&C on this subject not long after Ruth was killed, and I see your passion on the subject has not diminished.
And thank you, in particular, for mentioning the impact of a headlight's glare. I often make that point when talking about drunk driving; I don't think enough people realize how easily a drunk driver can be "blinded."
Best wishes to you and you family, and mazel tov on your daughter's graduation!
Jeremy Schiffres

June 21, 2007 at 8:47 AM 
Blogger Andrea said...

Ruth was in my bunk at Camp Ramah the summer before she was killed. I remember her, and just last Shabbat, Gloria Silverman and I were speaking about the day Gloria came to tell me that she had been killed.

I am fanatically careful not to drive after ingesting any alcohol whatsoever, and so is my husband, so I am thankful that we will never hurt anyone by driving drunk, but just this week, a couple in their mid sixties, both clean and sober members of AA were killed when their car was rammed by a totally drunken driver and ended up on the tracks with no time to get away before a train smacked into them. Even their dog died.

The disgusting waste created by these horrible actions made me think of Ruth and her friends, cut down when they were so young...I am married with 2 kids, who, if i had started younger, could have been teenagers, and am very conscious of the fact that I cannot control every jackass who gets behind the wheel of a car.

Yes, Ruth is remembered here in Hamilton, Ontario, and I pray that in twenty odd years, there is nothing left to write about on the topic of DUI, because no one does it anymore....

July 27, 2007 at 12:32 AM 
Blogger Zusel ben Shlomo said...

Dear Jeremy,

It's true, once its on the internet it will stay there until the end of electricity. When Ruth was killed we too hoped to end the senseless death and it took years to drive home the conclusion that we might take a bit out of the numbers, DWI deaths would not dissapear like polio or measles. The is no vacine, just continual hounding.

Thanks for caring,thanks for remembering, Ruth Yudelson, Erica Hasner and Pam Rudin.

Julian Yudelson

March 26, 2009 at 11:59 AM 

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