Glad To Be Madd
Carol McNamee has been tirelessly crusading against drunk driving for more than three decades, and the 80-year-old founder of MADD’s local chapter doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
It’s not like we’re looking for a cure for cancer; we know the cause,” says Carol McNamee, who founded Hawai‘i’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1984. “We had no money then, but a lot of heart and determination to make a difference.”
At that time, she headed the Hawai‘i Medical Association Auxiliary, which agreed to help her start the movement here. A room at the Blaisdell Hotel, a spare desk and a friend’s electric typewriter came first, along with help from Junior League and training from the national MADD.
McNamee’s husband of 59 years is Dr. Phil McNamee, a renowned OB/GYN who co-founded Pacific In Vitro Fertilization Institute.
“So, we’ve had parallel careers,” she says.
Now retired, Phil has worked to help families create life (including three of their own grandchildren), and Carol fights to keep families together and alive. In fact, Phil has been hit in two separate incidents by suspected drunk drivers (no sobriety tests in those early days), both times totaling his car.
“I told him, you’ve lived, and I don’t want it to happen again,” Mc-Namee recalls, and she felt compelled to do something instead of “just keeping my fingers crossed.”
On a shoestring budget with a team that’s now 80 percent volunteers, MADD’s crusade has seen the state’s alcohol-related fatalities reduced by half over its 35 years, but impaired driving from drugs is now on the rise. A national study from 2016 shows drugs were present in nearly half of Hawai‘i’s impaired driving fatalities.
“It’s kind of like a knife through my heart,” admits McNamee, an energetic 80-year-old who is already planning to take the drugged-driving issue back to the state Legislature in 2020.
As co-chairwoman of MADD’s public policy committee, she’s nudged many laws onto the books to make island roads safer from the needless carnage and permanent sorrow caused by drunk driving. Those laws, however, took as many as 11 years to pass.
“It can be very disappointing,” she notes.
The grassroots nonprofit still sees each day as a chance to educate people and save a life, “if we just keep working hard enough,” McNamee says. She cites the media, state lawmakers, police, prosecutors, law firms, transportation officials, schools and even the liquor commission as solid partners.
“And anyone who walks in our door can be put to work,” she adds.
Keeping dedicated volunteers and staff on task are candlelight vigils, grief support, a 24/7 helpline (877-MADD-HELP), sign waving, underage drinking seminars, conferences, letters to the editor, testimony, rallies, a speakers bureau, youth about the people,” explains McNamee, who’s considered a passionate crusader by all who meet her. (Smiling fondly at his longtime partner, Phil shakes his head and states, “I don’t think she’s ever going to quit.”)
“We must do whatever it takes as we serve the victims and their families,” says McNamee.
Though she’s stepped back some now and works mostly from home, the lifetime volunteer detoured to a Pennsylvania town during a recent trip in order to visit the mother of a man killed in the horrific Honolulu crash on Jan. 28, when a speeding and allegedly impaired driver killed three people on a pedestrian safety island and injured five others at the intersection.
“My husband and I spent an hour with her, sharing hugs and gifts,” she says, adding that Phil also was friends with the father of the local doctor who died.
Indeed, much of MADD’s effort goes to support and comfort. Funded by a federal Victim of Crimes grant (from criminals’ fines), Theresa Paulette currently oversees this part of the MADD mission as its Victims Services specialist. She knows firsthand that there are no DUI “accidents.”
“We need to change the culture, and we need to make it the serious crime that it is,” Paulette says. “(Drunk-driving crashes) are not an act of God — they’re the act of a person and are 100 percent preventable.”
She’s painfully aware of the drinking culture here, which often laughs off impairment, and the courts that enable it with light or no punishment after long delays. The victims’ friends and families, however, are destroyed in an instant.
Paulette’s 15-year-old son Brian was killed while riding his moped in 1992, and the truck driver who struck him did not undergo a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) test.
“It’s because he’s an old man,” the grieving single mom was told.
Months later, he flipped his truck and was tested with a .188 BAC. (The legal limit is .08.) Then followed the frustration of piecing together the man’s record, including two DUI convictions.
“We grow up believing there’s going to be justice, but not everybody goes to prison,” she’s learned. “It took two years of trying to get this man accountable, and they didn’t charge him with anything … When I found out about his six DUI arrests, I looked Carol up on a Sunday and called her. She was so warm and caring. She’s my hero and an inspiration to all of us. She’s one of the most sincere, warm individuals I know.”
The news, the courts, jails, hospitals and cemeteries harbor stories like Paulette’s every day, all over the country. In fact, every 51 minutes in the U.S., a drunk driver kills someone. But groups like MADD Hawai‘i are making a difference. The Hawai‘i Statutes now have a Victim Bill of Rights. Raising Hawai‘i’s drinking age to 21 in 1986 is another point of pride. Lobbying the legislature for stricter penalties has seen some success.
Act 169, sponsored by state Rep. Chris Lee after the Honolulu crash, took effect in July and increases penalties for repeat offenders. McNamee and Arkie Koehl — MADD’s public policy committee — are always there to testify.
The battle continues outside the capitol meanwhile. Sobriety checkpoints are a given. Project Red Ribbon, now known as “Tie One on for Safety,” is MADD’s visible pledge to drive sober over the holiday season via 35,000 ribbons distributed for display across the islands. A sobering statistic: 728 people are injured or killed in a drunk-driving crash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the U.S.
For those arrested drunk drivers who still don’t get it, there’s the ignition interlock system, a gift of technology that prevents an inebriated driver’s car from starting. By 2012, about 1,200 devices were installed here in Hawai‘i. McNamee and Koehl helped get this passed at the legislature, and they’re hoping to refine the details next year.
The newest generation of drivers — teenagers — are welcomed into MADD’s circle via alcoholand drug-free Project Graduations, youth summits, peer activism, multimedia shows like Street Smarts and Fake ID, and the advent of services like Uber and Lyft.
“Young people are not as likely to call a cab for their designated driver,” McNamee explains. “This way, they just take out their cell-phone and call one.”
In 2003, MADD unveiled the MADD Victim Memorial at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park on O‘ahu. The stark, graceful sculpture by John Koga evokes the emotion of a family torn apart and left with empty hearts. This April, a touching program featured testimonies at the memorial and the laying of 2,145 red roses, which represent the 2,145 Hawai‘i lives lost to impaired drivers over the past 35 years. The memorial is located at the ‘ewa end of the waterfront promenade, open to all who seek a peaceful moment. Paulette spearheaded the construction of the memorial and spoke at its dedication.
McNamee’s head and her file cabinet bulge with reports of the slaughter over decades — from the Bucky Lake carnage on O‘ahu in 1988 to the painful court testimony in today’s news.
“There always continues to be victims,” she says as she relates heartbreaking stories of parents who witnessed the death of their own children on the road.
“I for one, didn’t even think much about drinking and driving (in earlier years). There was no focus, and community expectations weren’t that high,” says McNamee. “But look how far we’ve come.
“We’ve started them talking — it’s very rewarding. Maybe we’re sort of a sparkplug.”
To learn more about MADD Hawai‘i or to help with its varied efforts in this anniversary year, go to madd.org/hawaii.