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Panel unites DUI drivers, victims

 

Last updated 12/30/2009 at Noon



It never gets any easier; it only becomes more necessary.

Most Tuesday evenings, Jan Schemenauer has her schedule laid out for her. That’s when she relives the tragedy that forever changed her life as she hears from the victims of DUI-related crashes and watches the reactions of those arrested for driving impaired themselves.

Tuesday is the night the Snohomish County DUI Task Force Victim Panel meets with the latest impaired drivers, those whose poor decisions caused serious accidents, and those who luckily have messed up only their own lives, so far.

The victims – often emotionally – tell the impaired drivers how their own lives were forever changed by someone’s decision to drive intoxicated.

Some on the panel are both victim and violator; they serve on the panel hoping others will learn from their mistakes.

Some have killed somebody by driving intoxicated; they relive their own tragedies in the hope of preventing others.

Some of those caught driving impaired are lucky, whether they realize it or not. The lucky ones only face heavy fines, sky-high insurance premiums, loss of their driver’s license and, for the repeat offenders, jail time.

But no matter how sorry for themselves they feel, that all pales in comparison to those on the other side, those who have lost people they love dearly and, in some cases, sustained severe and permanent injuries themselves because someone decided it was a smart move to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.

One man attended the panel as a 21-year-old facing a serious DUI charge.

“I remember feeling numb going into this experience, but it is what I came out feeling that I want to share,” he wrote. “The speakers were very moving, and honestly changed my life.”

The names and faces are a blur years later, the man said, but he will never forget their words.

“I came out of that room feeling overwhelmed with gratefulness for the speakers willing to tell their stories, grief for the tragedies these people have lived through,” he said.

“But above all, I felt like I received a new outlook on my beliefs of drinking and driving.”

The man has never driven impaired again, or let his friends do so, he said.

More than five hundred people each year die on our nation’s highways due to impaired drivers, DUI Task Force director and Target Zero coordinator Tracy McMillan said. In fact, more have died in DUI-related collisions than in all of the wars combined, she said.

Currently, at least two men are in Snohomish County Jail facing charges of vehicular homicide.

In just the past few weeks, five people have lost their lives in Snohomish County at the hands of intoxicated drivers.

The most recent, early Saturday morning in Arlington, came just hours before Schemenauer and McMillan held what is likely the first-ever peaceful protest against driving while intoxicated, not far from the scene.

“One time several years ago, the judge who had been on the bench the longest pointed out that in his tenure, no one had ever protested intoxicated driving,” Schemenauer said. “I thought, ‘Well, shoot, he’s right!’”

It took a few years for Schemenauer to get her bearings in her new career as the Victim Panel coordinator, but the irony (that no one had yet protested impaired driving despite its death toll outnumbering that of those killed in wars) stuck in her mind.

One of the messages Schemenauer drives home is how easy it is to contact a friend, particularly with cell phones being so prevalent these days.

Of the dozens of friends’ numbers many carry with them, surely there’s at least one willing to come pick up a drunk buddy for a safe ride home, she pointed out.

“Life is so short and can be gone in the blink of an eye,” another impaired driver wrote after attending a Victim Panel. “And my cell phone doesn’t weigh 500 pounds,” she said, referring to Schemenauer’s point.

It’s not about you; it’s about those who love you, she added, referring to one of the victim’s messages that night.

Not all get it, of course. One filled out the form saying the panel had changed their life, but also said that current DUI laws are too strict.

“Not everybody has reached their bottom yet,” McMillan said.

McMillan and Schemenauer provide DUI education to high schools, court-ordered offenders, driver education classes, and the general community.

They coordinate the DUI victims’ memorial wall in McCollum Park in Everett, and provide the tiles commemorating the victims.

They also help victims access needed community resources related to funeral arrangements and victims’ rights.

The victim panels are open to the public, and they are for everyone, not just intoxicated drivers and their victims, McMillan emphasized.

Parents sometimes take their teenaged drivers. Some are minors who were caught with alcohol but hadn’t driven impaired yet; others attend as part of their driver education.

“Anyone can attend as space allows,” Schemenauer said.

#The panel meets most Tuesdays (call ahead) in the Snohomish County Courthouse, 3000 Rockefeller, in Everett. For more information, call 425-388-7269. #

 

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