When someone dies a preventable death, there is no obligation for loved ones to become activists, aiming to stop similar deaths. It is enough to merely grieve for a tragic loss.
But some people turn their grief into action, devoting countless hours to educating the public and creating change. One such person in Doris Aiken, who turns 90 on July 31, 2016 and is now in her 39th year of activism to prevent drunk driving. Most amazingly, perhaps, is that Aiken barely knew the two teenagers whose deaths would change her life. I am honored to have met her when researching my book on the history of drunk driving, One for the Road.
Aiken was making dinner for her family on December 5, 1977 when she noticed a headline in the local Schenectady, New York newspaper. A drunk driver, with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit and an open can of beer between his knees, had killed two local teenagers that Aiken knew distantly.
As a journalist who hosted a television program that addressed pressing social issues, Aiken knew a good story. But when she began digging, what she discovered astounded her.
The local district attorney chuckled when she asked him whether the driver would receive severe punishment. “No, we don’t take away licenses or put people in jail,” he said.
“This is an accident,” the D.A. added. “He didn’t mean to do it and probably feels very bad about it.” He advised Aiken not to get involved.
By even reaching the D.A., Aiken had done better than the mother of the two victims. He would not, Aiken later wrote, even return the bereaved woman’s phone calls.
What followed over the next months and years was pure grassroots activism. With the backing of her Unitarian church, Aiken organized a small meeting of interested citizens. This group would eventually become Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), America’s first anti-drunk driving organization, in 1978.