Jan Withers has never been to Idaho before, but she has a strong bond with a Treasure Valley man who lost his wife in a drunk-driving crash in her home state of Maryland.
In 2008, Gesa Maria Lamers, a Caldwell physician, was visiting family when she was killed. Her 3-year-old was injured.
Withers, now president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, provided support to Lamers husband, Tulug Salahifar, through the drivers trial.
A lot is talking and listening and just being present, she said.
Withers will join Salahifar in Boises first-ever Walk Like MADD event Saturday to raise money for drunk-driving prevention and support for victims. About 100 people had signed up for the walk as of Thursday, and more than $4,500 had been pledged by supporters.
Withers said she found comfort in talking on the phone with a MADD victims advocate after her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa, was killed in a crash with a drunken driver in 1992. She made the call after feeling paralyzed by the agony of the loss.
It seems like yesterday. I just miss her, its just that simple. The pain is just right there under the surface. She is always with me, Withers said.
MADD, founded in 1980, aids victims and families, raises awareness, and advocates to stop drunken driving and prevent underage drinking.
Nationwide, DUI fatalities have dropped by half in the past 30 years, but the toll remains high. Idaho had 96 fatalities and 273 serious injuries in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.
We asked Withers some specifics on prevention.
Q: How does Idaho compare with other states in preventing and punishing DUI offenders?
A: Idaho could do more to prevent drunk driving, including allowing law enforcement to conduct sobriety checkpoints, which have been shown to reduce drunk-driving deaths, injuries and crashes by 20 percent. When it comes to punishment, Idaho is behind the rest of the country its one of only 18 states that doesn't require ignition interlocks for any first offender.
Q: If Idaho could do one thing to prevent drunken driving, what would you recommend?
A: One very important step is requiring the ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, including first-time offenders, since research shows that an average drunk driver has driven drunk at least 80 times before a first arrest.
Q: What evidence do you have for its effectiveness?
A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ignition interlocks save lives and reduce drunk driving recidivism by 67 percent. States that have passed all-offender ignition interlock laws, such as Oregon and Arizona, have seen drunk-driving fatalities drop by more than 50 percent.
Q: How do you respond to critics who say the devices arent foolproof?
A: The devices may not be foolproof; however, reducing drunk driving recidivism by two-thirds means thousands of lives are saved and injuries prevented. Newer models have more sophisticated features; some take a picture of the person, so probation/parole officers can ascertain who is using the interlock.
Q: Have you assessed the effectiveness of Idahos use of interlock devices?
A: We havent. At last count, Idaho had only 662 ignition interlocks installed. We are working with Idaho Transportation Departments Office of Highway Safety on improving ignition interlock availability and oversight.
Q: What is the impediment?
A: In Idaho, its up to the discretion of the judges. I found in Maryland that the judges didnt even know how it works until we started making this our priority, so they didnt use it as part of the sentence. There needs to be a law that requires it, so its not up to the discretion of the judge.
Q: What measures have been ineffective?
A: License suspension. Fifty to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive without a license.
Q: Can new laws really make a difference in preventing drunk-driving deaths?
A: Yes. Strong drunk-driving countermeasures can save lives and prevent injuries, as evidenced by the numbers in Oregon and Arizona.
Q: Which state is most exemplary at DUI prevention?
A: Arizona has seen a 51 percent drop in drunk-driving fatalities, due in large part to its law requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. Increased law enforcement efforts have also contributed to this decline.
Q: How do we teach new generations of drivers about the dangers of drinking and driving?
A: Research shows us that parents are the No. 1 influence on their kids decisions about alcohol. MADDs Power of Parents program gives parents the tools and resources to talk with their kids (find a link at IdahoStatesman.com).
Q: Many celebrities and public officials have been convicted of DUI. Is it becoming more socially acceptable?
A: MADD is saddened anytime we hear that someone has made the choice to drive drunk especially a celebrity or public official, who may be seen as a role model. I definitely dont think its become more socially acceptable.
Q: Whats being done for families of DUI victims?
A: MADD has a 24/7 help line for victims and survivors of drunk- and drugged-driving crashes. The number is 1-877-MADD-HELP. In 2011, MADD served more than 63,000 victims and survivors of drunk and drugged driving.