New President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving

Glynn Birch discusses his new role as president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

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The new president of MADD is a dad. Last week, Mothers Against Drunk Driving elected Glynn Birch as their next president, and he'll assume that office on July 1st. Birch joined the organization 17 years ago after his son was killed by a drunk driver. Now as MADD's first male and first African-American leader, he plans to target high-risk drivers, habitual drunk drivers and repeat offenders.

If you have questions about the campaign against drunk driving in general or for MADD's new president in particular, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK, and the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Glynn Birch joins us now by phone from Orlando, Florida.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. GLYNN BIRCH (President-elect, Mothers Against Drunk Driving): Hey, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm very well. Congratulations.

Mr. BIRCH: Well, thank you. Let me make sure you understand that I'm still up here in Washington, DC.

CONAN: Ahh, I was misinformed. But thanks very much for joining us anyway. I understand, like almost everybody who becomes a member of MADD, your story starts with a tragedy.

Mr. BIRCH: It does. Yeah, it happened May 3rd, 1988. My not-quite two-year-old was with two other cousins. They heard the ice cream truck in the neighborhood, like so many other families. They went outside to get ice cream, and as they were crossing the street, a car came barreling through going over 70 miles per hour, striking my son, dragging his body over 150 feet before the car came to a stop. My son died instantly.

CONAN: And the horrible, horrible aftermath of that, I understand a friend of yours suggested you get in touch with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and you hesitated.

Mr. BIRCH: I did. You know, first of all, think about losing a loved one or a son, a daughter, whomever. Any way you look at it, it's going to be tough. You know, dealing with it that night, I thought it was an accident, but what really boiled down to the matter was I read in the newspaper the next day and found out that the driver of the vehicle that killed my son was a repeat offender. He had three previous convictions, he had a blood alcohol content of .26, which was double the limit there in the state of Florida, and he was driving on a revoked license. When I read that--oh, man, it just made no sense. I became--it was just unbelievable.

Then shortly I talked with my attorney. He couldn't answer my questions, and he said, `Glynn, let me tell you, call MADD.' He knew that they would have the resources and some of the answers to kind of help me deal with this matter, and it was the best phone call I ever made. I picked up the phone, called them and they had the answers for me. One in particular, her name was Janet Dunnigan and she was my victim advocate, who had also lost a daughter from a previous crash, a drunk driver.

CONAN: You'll forgive me, but I think most people think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a largely female organization and largely white.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah, yeah. It--really MADD's always been inclusive of everyone. They welcomed me without any hesitation. They, of course, tried to get as many family members, which would mean my wife as well. Losing a loved one, as she had just--I'll tell you, it was unbearable for her. She didn't want to talk to anyone, so I--after reading the story in the newspaper, I had to make a move, and I was glad I did. I was there to go through the court systems. Janet helped me navigate, you know. So again, it's--they're inclusive of everyone.

The thing that we need to understand is the drunk driver will not discriminate against anyone, so therefore the people who are involved with MADD, hey, it doesn't matter your gender, your race, MADD is there to welcome you.

CONAN: MADD and a number of other factors--but MADD was certainly among them--helped bring down the death rate and the injury rate on the nation's highways in the '80s and '90s. The number of drunk driving-related deaths, though, has stayed stable for the past several years at around 17,000 a year. Again, that's way down from 30,000 a year, but nevertheless way too many still. Does that suggest that we need to try other methods?

Mr. BIRCH: It does. Not necessarily other methods, but we know what works, and the idea is making sure that we put these methods into action. You're absolutely correct with the 17,000. That's too many lives. Three in 10 Americans will be personally affected by such a tragedy in their lifetime. I don't know about you, but that's too many lives. I believe America really has become complacent. Yeah, MADD was there and I believe we did such a great job as they were thinking that--it kind of--you know, they thought the problem was solved. But there are a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we strengthen the fact that as the example of the driver that killed my son, the higher-risk driver, they're still out there driving, and so we need to put legislation together to make sure that we get them off the roads.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation: (800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. We're talking with Glynn Birch. He's the president-elect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

And let's talk with David. David's with us from Rockford, Illinois.

DAVID (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: Afternoon.

DAVID: How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

DAVID: Good. I was struck by a drunk driver last year. The woman was--her blood alcohol was .243 which was...

Mr. BIRCH: Wow.

DAVID: ...three times the legal limit in Illinois, and this was her fourth offense within three years. She was--it was her third offense with no license. She was driving after revocation. She had no insurance. But--and I don't really have a question, but I have a comment, and that is when I went to the sentencing, when the judge sentenced her, and the judge acted like it was a minor traffic infraction. I thought that the judge was going to reprimand her, give her a stern lecturing about the evils of drunk driving. The judge said nothing, and this woman walked off with probation.

CONAN: Is...

DAVID: I think that the judge missed a golden opportunity to impress upon this defendant the seriousness of her actions. Now I was not killed, fortunately, but nevertheless, I was seriously injured, and I would have liked some backup from the court system, especially since I was standing right there at the bench in front of the judge.

CONAN: Glynn Birch, is David's story a familiar one?

Mr. BIRCH: It's very familiar. David, I'm sorry for the injury and it's not surprising when you mention it being his fourth offense, huh?

DAVID: Right, her fourth offense in three years.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah.

DAVID: And I'm sorry for you, sir, because your loss was certainly catastrophically more than mine.

Mr. BIRCH: Well, David, you're the perfect person that I want to talk about real quickly. You know, he just mentioned about me losing a life, but he was injured, seriously injured, so his way of living, he will no longer experience again. You know, there's over half a million people who are injured per year, let alone the 17,000 people that are dying, and this is something that is 100 percent preventable. So, David, there's no need for you to feel like I've had a bigger loss, because again, your loss is the way of your life--livelihood...

DAVID: You know, I was talking...

Mr. BIRCH: ...so it's important that we understand that that high-risk driver that I talked about fits right into David's category.

DAVID: I'm a lawyer. I had just left the courthouse, and this happened right in front of the courthouse so, you know--and also in front of the police station. But re...

CONAN: You'd think the judge would have been interested out of self-preservation, if nothing else.

DAVID: Well, you know, really the judge acted as if this was no big deal, and I fully expected him to say, `Ma'am, you were three times the legal limit, you have done this three times in the last four years, this is the fourth time and, my gosh, you know, you need treatment, you need help.' He said nothing.

CONAN: Hmm. David, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

DAVID: Thanks. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail that we got from Michael in Massachusetts: `Last year MADD downgraded my state, Massachusetts, because we don't have a primary enforcement seat belt law, though we do have an excellent record on drunk driving. What do seat belts have to do with drunk driving? Is MADD another one of these political groups that can't stick to their announced issue?'

Mr. BIRCH: Michael's from Massachusetts?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BIRCH: Yes. Primary seat belts save lives. Your best defense against the drunk driver is wearing a seat belt. I'm trying to understand why anyone would not want to. I know I make sure that all of my family and friends buckle up, because you never know when that crash is about to happen. And it happens once every 30 minutes, someone's killed. That's enough for me to make sure that I'm buckled up with my family.

CONAN: Yeah, but why did MADD downgrade the state of Massachusetts on their--apparently you've got some list of how well states do--because of this seat belt law which doesn't have anything directly to do with drunk driving?

Mr. BIRCH: I don't have a list in front of me with the Massachusetts down--I'm still trying to understand something. I thought he said--repeat the question again?

CONAN: `MADD downgraded my state, Massachusetts, because we do not have a primary enforcement seat belt law.' That's what his concern was, that MADD is getting off its core message of fighting drunk driving. Why is MADD involved in trying to get seat belt laws enforced?

Mr. BIRCH: Well, we're not downgrading anything. As I mentioned to you before, we want to make sure that people have their seat belts buckled up against the drunk driver.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, is MADD advocating for primary seat belt law?

Mr. BIRCH: Yes.

CONAN: OK. And if Massachusetts doesn't have one, if MADD had a rating for Massachusetts, presumably you would downgrade the state of Massachusetts? Right?

Mr. BIRCH: Oh, I see, as far as the grading.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. BIRCH: Yes.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BIRCH: Yes.

CONAN: So why the emphasis on seat belts when that has nothing to do, the questioner asks, with drunk driving?

Mr. BIRCH: And my response is it has all to do with drunk driving. It allows him to--it's gonna save lives. The seat belt's gonna save lives when he's buckled up.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Brandon. Brandon's calling us from Salt Lake City.

BRANDON (Caller): Yes. My question was: What is your standpoint on organizations like DUI Drivers(ph), which is a non-profit, organizations that focus on getting drunk people home safely as opposed to--it's my understanding that MADD is opposed to organizations like this, and why?

CONAN: Glynn Birch?

Mr. BIRCH: I'm not familiar with the group that he just talked about, but as far as getting people home safely, it's always best to have a plan. If you're going to drink, make sure you have a plan and have a designated driver. If you're not gonna have a driver that gets your there and you feel that you need some type of other means of getting home, the important thing that we're talking about is making sure that you don't get behind the wheel after you've had that first drink or you're impaired.

BRANDON: So you're not opposed to organizations like that then?

Mr. BIRCH: Of bringing people home?

CONAN: Organiz...

BRANDON: DUI Drivers. I had spoken to the person who was the head of it, and he said that MADD often was opposed to their program because it didn't stop the problem of people going out and drinking. I don't understand why they were so upset at--you know, MADD kind of opposed that program.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah. MADD is not against the drinking.

BRANDON: OK.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah. It's the two, when you put them together, drinking then driving, that's what we're opposed of. So if they're gonna have a designated driver to get them home safely, by all means, take care of it.

BRANDON: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Brandon.

We're talking with the new president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Glynn Birch, who takes office on July 1st.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You gasped earlier when one of our callers mentioned an extraordinarily high blood alcohol level. In the past, MADD has focused on lowering blood alcohol levels, the legal limit, to .08. First of all, how did the group arrive at that figure, and how is that figure being accepted across the country?

Mr. BIRCH: Well, it's science based, how we arrived at that figure, and it's already accepted in every state. The federal standard now is .08 in every state, which has passed. So again, it's all science-based data.

CONAN: And critics say that this targets social drinkers as opposed to the repeat offenders you're talking about.

Mr. BIRCH: Oh, no, it doesn't target the social drinker. Again, any time that you're having a drink, you want to make sure you have a plan before you have that first drink, so to answer your question, no, we're not targeting social drinkers.

CONAN: OK. Get another caller on the line. This is Colleen. Colleen's calling from Fallbrook, California.

COLLEEN (Caller): Hi. Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

COLLEEN: Hi. I so appreciate--is it Glynn?

Mr. BIRCH: Yes.

COLLEEN: The new president, congratulations. I was involved in a car crash in 1971 the day after Christmas. A Buick hit our Volkswagen and I lost four members of my family, including my husband and daughter. I was the sole survivor. And it's been 31 years now--or 34 years. You know--and I'm so, so grateful to MADD, because being involved, it healed me, being able to tell my story, and it got all the--it made me better, and--but you know, I thought I'd make a difference, but the new--we've got to keep on doing it, and I'm so glad--getting the message out and keeping people aware. And I'm so glad to hear what you're doing. And, you know, that last caller, it was--it isn't anything about social drinking. It's about not getting in your car impaired, and that's why you have to make a plan to have somebody that hasn't been drinking when you go home. Anyway, that's all I have to say and I'm so grateful to have been a part of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And dads like you.

Mr. BIRCH: Well, thanks for your comments, Colleen. What state are you from?

COLLEEN: I am from California. I'm in Fallbrook, but it's 50 miles north of San Diego.

Mr. BIRCH: OK. I'm familiar with it. The chairman of the board lives in your city.

COLLEEN: Cindy Roark.

Mr. BIRCH: Yes. Yes.

COLLEEN: Yes. And she was a big helper in my healing.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah. Well, first of all, I am sorry for your loss. Four people. Wow.

COLLEEN: Yes--well, and the huge one was my 12-year-old daughter. My husband was only 34, and what was really tragic is my three sons didn't have a father or sister after that. Wasn't really my tragedy as much it was my sons.

Mr. BIRCH: Right, right.

CONAN: Well...

COLLEEN: And--but we're doing OK.

Mr. BIRCH: Well, great, great.

CONAN: Congrat...

Mr. BIRCH: Even after 34 years, though, you know, the pain is still there.

COLLEEN: Oh, it changes who you are.

Mr. BIRCH: Yeah. And I know you just have to adjust and just move on with your--I won't say move on with your life, because that's not the way I intend it, because obviously I'm doing the same thing after 16 years.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BIRCH: But it takes courage. Takes courage to stay on the phone and hear such stories that keep happening, as David mentioned, having four previous convictions, her driving on a no license, suspended license. It's when are we gonna get the message and change? It's very important.

CONAN: Well, one of you has got another phone call. Colleen, thank you very much.

COLLEEN: I'll let you go.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Thanks very much for the phone call.

And, Glynn Birch, we'll let you go to answer that phone that's ringing in your pocket there. Glynn Birch is...

Mr. BIRCH: Yes, I'm OK.

CONAN: Yes. Thanks very much. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. BIRCH: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Glynn Birch is the president-elect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and he joined us today from here in Washington, DC.

You're listening to NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

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