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‘Think before you drink’: Victim impact panels explained on dangers of drunken driving

Anyone who has been arrested for impaired driving or a related charge knows exactly what attending a “victim impact panel” is, but some who read the daily court records may be interested to know what this means.

The panel is a court-ordered class with the intention of letting offenders know the possible outcomes of their decisions and to hopefully deter future inhibited and dangerous driving.

“This is just like court,” said Joni Anderson, who runs the panel for Minot’s Rehab Services Inc., before she told the full audience in the Ex-Servicemen’s Room of the Ward County Courthouse to remove their caps, shut off their phones and not to drink anything in the room. Anderson has been involved in the panel and other rehabilitative resources since college, beginning, she estimated, in about 1995.

There were 120 people signed up for the class on Wednesday, but there were more than that many in attendance. The members sign in to the register lists before entering the room, pay the $35 service fee, and then take seats alongside their fellow driving under the influence of liquor or drugs, in actual physical control of a motor vehicle under the influence of liquor and drugs and reckless driving convicts. Four in attendance were serving time at the county jail for their charges.

“Our motto is ‘think before you drink, have a plan so you get home safe,'” Anderson said by way of introduction to the class. She also held up taxi business cards, a wallet-sized chart showing the average effects and impairment associated with any number of drinks on different body-types and other information people could take home with them at the end of the program to help them to plan, stay safe and be responsible on their next night out.

After the initial introduction to the program, attendees were introduced to the panel, which consisted this time of a woman whose daughter had been flung across a van hit by an intoxicated driver and has since had many long-term medical problems and a man who had a long history of alcoholism and substance abuse problems but who is currently celebrating 33 years of sobriety.

“Anybody ready to listen to a granny?” asked Nancy, the first panel speaker. “Yes, I’m a granny but I’m also a mother of a daughter who got hit.”

Her daughter, Laura, a highly-educated professional, had her life changed forever after a traffic crash involving a drunk driver some years ago, Nancy explained.

“The only thing she doesn’t have a brace on is her brain,” Nancy said, after explaining at length the braces she’s had on her neck, head and other areas of her body ever since that night. “She’s still very smart, but she can not work.” Laura’s top jaw was also damaged in the crash and “her teeth are falling out… I don’t see an end to the medical bills.”

“The guy who was driving the truck had no identification … He got out of his truck and came over to my daughter” who was lying in the ditch. He had a beer in his hand and he spilled beer on her face as he checked up on her.

“If they were as strict on drunk driving as they are on the smoking ban, this would be a better state and a better town to live in.”

The daughter, Laura, now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Since she can no longer work, her husband had to take a better-paying job there to provide for the children and the ongoing medical problems his wife faces. Laura used to also be a panel speaker before the move.

“Laura did a nice presentation,” Anderson said. “She’d have dominos sitting there and in front of each of them she would have ‘psychological,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘financial,’ ‘family,’ and just different areas that things affect you. She would talk about one and then just tap the domino, letting you know that it’s not just what you see, but that it goes deeper than that.

“You all have parents, you all have grandparents, you all might one day have children and grandchildren,” Nancy said, finishing her message. “We all suffer.”

“When I got my DUI I was clocked at 137 (miles per hour) in a 25,” Mike, the next speaker, said by way of introduction. He sees participating in the panel to be “an honor.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven impaired, but it’s huge. It’s in the hundreds. … I’m not here to tell you to quit drinking, just don’t drive.”

Mike went on to explain a harrowing story of alcohol and substance abuse and how he considered himself “bad ass” when he was younger, as well as his childhood spent sleeping on the floor with his siblings because the only bed in his house was used by his mother and father. He has had five heart-attacks, the last one being two years ago, during which he had technically died four times.

“The things that have been given to me since I quit drinking have been great. … I really like what I’m doing,” he said of his improved life, and reaching out to help others that may be living a similar lifestyle.

At this point, the lights are turned out and the attendees watch a short documentary that interviews both multiple DUI convicts, victims, and the family of victims who have been lost, including a woman who lost her fiancee shortly before their marriage.

The affects of the program seem to be diverse. Anderson said she had to stand next to a woman who obviously wanted to sleep during the whole presentation and who had complained that she even had to attend the class because she “only got a ‘reckless driving'” charge, and not a DUI. One man, looked up to the ceiling several times and yawned as a man in the movie cried as he spoke of a life he took one night while driving drunk. Another man, across the room, wiped tears from his eyes after the lights came back on and others thanked Anderson at the end of the program.

Although Anderson guessed that 10 percent of attendees are repeat offenders – the video says 50 percent of impaired drivers repeat – some seemed noticeably moved and took time into filling out the questionnaire at the end which includes questions like about their plans, previous to the panel, about changing their drinking and driving behavior, the insights they gained from the panel, the main things that could stop them from drinking and driving, and, finally, if they or someone they know may want to speak for the panel in the future.

One of the hand-outs is a receipt for attendance, which includes a pledge on the back that the offender can sign to promise to “NEVER drink and then drive for any reason.” The pledge began last month, Anderson said, and at least one attendee had made the pledge and turned it end at the end of the panel.

The program is administered by Minot’s Rehab Services Inc., which was created in 1988 to provide employment and support for people with disabilities, and has since branched out into various fields, including programs to rehabilitate offenders.

Not all who drink and drive have to attend the panel. Some live in different parts of the country and would be unable to attend in.

“You don’t stop and think about what you’re doing to your children,” Anderson said in an interview after talking about the story another panel speaker tells. Her parents were always drunk, and missed out on major parts of the speaker’s life, including the father passing out at her marriage and being unable to walk her down the aisle. “Her message lately has been that next time you walk through the door, stop and think about who sees you. Is it your children? Is it your wife? Whoever. You don’t always think of those things.”