Tuesday, August 19, 2008

DUI signs are message from grieving families


Along state highways, bold signs convey a simple plea, "PLEASE DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE."

They're a part of the Washington State Department of Transportation's DUI Memorial Sign Program to prevent drunken driving, but they also act as a memorial, bearing the names of people killed in drunken-driving accidents.

"I see all the signs as a voice. We need the laws changed, and the only way we can do that is for people to see what we're losing," said Caroline Clay, the mother of Cassandra Clay, who died in an accident Oct. 1, 2007.

On Tuesday, Caroline Clay participated in a sign dedication for her daughter and Shane Bender, who also was killed in a DUI-related accident at state Routh 7 and 159th Street Southeast in Spanaway.

"The weekend before Cassandra was killed, there was an article about a lady having 13 DUIs, and (Cassandra) said, 'Mom how does this happen?' And I had no answer for that," Clay said. "Hopefully people will see these signs and ask why were these people on the road."

The program to erect the DUI signs started in 1994 as a grass-roots effort by a Walla Walla family that lost a loved one in a drunken-driving accident. They wanted a way to set up a formal sign. Now there are 126 signs on state highways, said Pat O'Leary, DOT traffic regulation specialist.

"Since we established the program, there have been a number of local agencies in our state who have developed companion programs. They use very similar signs and program criteria," O'Leary said.

The signs cost $300 to $700, and the prices are about to go up. However, victims' panels and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving find ways to help families pay for them, O'Leary said.

After her daughter's death, Clay decided to start speaking for the Pierce County DUI Victim Panel, which eventually decided to pay for her daughter's sign.

For the families, it's like a message in a bottle. They put it out there and hope it saves someone's life. The hope makes it worth working with these families on a daily basis, O'Leary said.

"It's a really tough position for us as well, when we go to these scenes and we see what it does to the families," State Patrol Trooper Brandy Kessler said.

In 2007, there were 231 alcohol-related car fatalities, according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.

"We have more people killed in automobile accidents that way then we do by guns. So it's a very serious thing," Kessler said.

For Clay, she wanted to have her say.

"All of her (Cassandra's) friends and the people she knew just about take that road at some point. For me it's a reminder for them," Clay said. "I see this as a chance for Cassandra to keep talking."

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