The late-night call informing him of his son’s death at the hands of a drunken driver 12 years ago is a memory that still haunts Bill Elliot, particularly amid news of the two teenage girls killed last week, allegedly under similar circumstances.
“We know what it’s like to get a knock that you’re not expecting,” the 63-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident said. “It changes your life.”
Last week’s double fatal, which killed cousins Nioami Lazicki, 15, and Ashley Dauber, 13, who had been walking along a Middle Township road when they were struck, brings the total number of motor vehicle fatalities this year to six in Cape May County and 334 across the state.
That is less than the number killed over the same period last year, and in general represents an overall decrease from decades past. But the statistics bring little solace to residents whose lives are forever changed, particularly by drunken driving. Elliot just weeks earlier had marked the 12-year anniversary of the death of his 22-year-old son, John, who was a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy.
“We’re making progress,” Elliott said of the reduction in drunken driving fatalities. “The problem is, progress doesn’t mean anything when you get that knock on the door or call in the middle of the night.”
In 2010 — the latest year for which drunken driving statistics were available — the State Police reported about 31 percent of the drivers in fatalities had consumed alcohol prior to the crash. Ten years ago, 36 percent of all fatalities involved drivers who had consumed alcohol prior to the crash.
Public awareness of the dangers of drunken driving may have something to do with the decrease, including initiatives such as the HERO Campaign, initiated by Elliott and his wife, Muriel, which encourages bar owners to provide free nonalcoholic drinks to designated drivers.
Part of the campaign is to encourage people who want to go out to drink to bring along a friend who can act as a designated driver or deter others from driving drunk.
“It’s the solo drinkers that end up causing a lot of these situations,” Elliott said.
The Elliotts also spearheaded new legislation, including “John’s Law,” which requires New Jersey police to immediately impound the vehicles of suspected drunken drivers.
In general, the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes has trended down recently. There were 627 motor vehicle fatalities last year across the state, which is a nearly 19 percent drop from five years ago and a 22 percent decline from 15 years ago, according to the State Police.
However, those figures tend to fluctuate year over year. For instance, last year the state experienced a 9 percent increase. But so far this year, as of Friday, the 334 motor vehicle fatalities is about 5 percent less than at this time last year, according to the State Police.
“This year’s numbers are more in line with the trend,” said Zach Hosseini, spokesman for the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “The five- to 10-year trend (has) our numbers going down.”
Typically, summer is busy, with the highest number of motor vehicle fatalities occurring in July during four of the five years from 2006 to 2010, according to the State Police. Typically, drivers involved in those crashes tend to be male, comprising two-thirds or more of the total drivers, according to State Police statistics for the five most recent years.
Sherri Branca, 49, of Egg Harbor Township, and her family lobbied for the enactment of “Ricci’s Law” in honor of her son, who died from injuries suffered after a drunken driver swerved along Ocean Drive near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge and struck Branca and two other bicyclists on July 14, 2006. The law requires ignition locks for repeat drunken drivers.
Branca said she believes stricter laws, including requiring all drivers to have their breath tested prior to allowing vehicles to turn on, would help further reduce the incidence of drunken driving.
“Every little bit helps, but I don’t think the laws are strong enough with the first-time offenses,” Branca said.
The grief she felt knowing that her son’s death could have been prevented has been overwhelming at times in the six years since it happened.
“What’s helped us get through the whole thing is family and friends,” Branca said. “Still to this day, they come on his birthday and the day he died.”
Kyle Carroll, 24, of Middle Township, was childhood friends with Craig Lozier, a 20-year-old man who was riding his motorcycle on Route 47 in Cape May County when he was struck and killed by a driver under the influence of drugs on July 21, 2008.
The experience affected him for life and figures into all of his decisions, particularly when it comes to driving, Carroll said. Some of the high school teenagers he works with knew the teenagers killed last week, and he can understand what they are going through.
“It will stick with them for the rest of their life in making decisions,” Carroll said. “That’s the only good part of the situation. Hopefully, people won’t be making those decisions again.”
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