Tuesday, August 6, 2002

MIDDLETOWN, Va. The new president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving will earn every dime of her annual $75,000 salary this year fighting off critics who say the once all-powerful group has become an organization of prohibitionists.
MADD’s new eight-point attack plan is named “Let’s Get MADD All Over Again,” indicating a worry that the nonprofit group has lost some of its punch, said one MADD vice president.
Wendy Hamilton, who has quietly transformed herself from a stay-at-home mother of three into the new president of MADD, must now transform the lobbying efforts of the aging organization which still commands an impressive $50 million in annual revenues.
“We really need to kick-start this whole program,” said Jan Blaser-Upchurch, MADD’s vice president of victim issues. “We need to make people outraged and concerned that this drunk-driving problem has not gone away.”
Mrs. Hamilton cites the AIDS epidemic as one of the issues that has shifted the limelight away from MADD, as has the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Washington area.
“I’m not trying to minimize in any way what happened to our country on that day, because if anybody knows terror, I think the victims of drunk driving certainly do,” said Mrs. Hamilton, noting that about 14,000 Americans have been killed in drunk-driving crashes since September.
The organization’s plan, which calls for widespread sobriety checkpoints and increased excise taxes on beer, among other measures, has drawn sharp criticism from civil-liberties and consumer-rights advocates.
“They started off in the 1980s with a legitimate goal. However, like many nonprofits, you have the question: Once you have achieved your goal, what do you do with your organization?” said Martin Wooster, who has written extensively on various philanthropic issues and is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.
In response to MADD’s proposed excise-tax increase on beer, Mr. Wooster points out that such taxes are higher now than they have ever been. “You’re punishing every beer drinker in America, and for what reason?” he asked.
MADD’s directors hope their plan will reduce the annual number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities from its current level of about 16,000 down to 10,000. From 1980, the year of MADD’s founding, to 1994, the annual drunk-driving death rate decreased 43 percent.
But the statistic has leveled off since 1994, prompting some observers to say MADD is now merely flogging a cause that has already been largely accomplished.
Candy Lightner, MADD’s founder, says she disassociated herself from the movement in 1985 because she believed the organization was headed in the wrong direction.
“It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned,” said Mrs. Lightner, who founded MADD after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. “I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”
Several years after she left MADD, Mrs. Lightner briefly represented the American Beverage Institute in its fight against the 0.08 percent BAC law. She also lobbied Congress to enforce tougher penalties for drunk drivers.
Mrs. Hamilton, whose tenure as MADD president began in June, denied her organization is against any and all alcohol consumption. “It’s not about people drinking,” she said. “It’s about people drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car and putting themselves, and everybody else on the highway, at risk.”
MADD in the past few years has targeted elementary- and middle-school students in their education campaigns against drinking and against alcohol advertising.
Also included in MADD’s eight-point plan are stricter seat-belt laws in all 50 states, and increased federal funding of alcohol-abuse prevention and education.
With only two years to accomplish all of this, Mrs. Hamilton hit the ground running.
In July, she met with congressmen and other advocacy groups in Washington. Then she was off to a book signing in New York City, the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver and another conference in Montreal.
If Mrs. Hamilton had been told 30 years ago that she would one day serve in a position of such influence, she probably would have laughed.
“I went to college to get my ‘Mrs.’ degree,” said Mrs. Hamilton, who happily married at the age of 20 and contentedly remained at home to care for her children. Little did she know a single act of irresponsibility would alter her life’s course, indelibly marking her character and catapulting her into a career of activism.
That day in 1984 is etched deeply into Mrs. Hamilton’s memory. “My mother called me on a beautiful day just like this,” she said. “I could tell that something horrible had happened. And she finally said, ‘It’s Becky and Timmy. They’re both dead.’”
Becky was Mrs. Hamilton’s 32-year-old sister, and Timmy her 22-month-old nephew. Both were killed after a drunk driver crossed into their lane, causing a head-on collision.
“On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, you don’t expect to hear that,” Mrs. Hamilton said, as she recalled the memory. Since that day, her life has never been the same. Over the next few weeks, as she grieved over her loved ones, Mrs. Hamilton came to learn of an upstart organization known as MADD.
She feels that small events, like pieces of a puzzle, came together and led her into a life of activism. The week after the funeral, she stumbled upon a MADD bumper sticker while going through Becky’s belongings. She saw an article about MADD while reading a magazine. And there was even a MADD chapter in Crown Point, Ind., where she lived at the time a striking coincidence, considering how few chapters existed in 1984, only four years after MADD’s founding.
“A lot of what’s happened to me in my life since then has been just pieces of the puzzle that have been building a picture,” Mrs. Hamilton said.
“I believe there’s a reason why I’m sitting here today,” she said, recalling the tragedy that took her sister’s life. “That’s what I’m doing now, keeping her legacy alive.”

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