BUFFALO – In Tennessee, they pick up trash wearing "I Am a Drunk Driver" signs. In Ohio, they receive specially-made license plates to publicly acknowledge the fact they've been convicted of drunk driving.
New York has no such "DWI shaming" laws, which have gained momentum in various states during the past decade or so.
But that's just fine with Deanna Russo, even though a drunk driver with multiple priors stole her sister away from her 16 years ago.
"I don't think embarrassment is the answer," Russo said.
As the Executive Director for the Crusade Against Impaired Driving (CAID), Russo has made it her life's mission to find ways to fix DWI loopholes, strengthen penalties and advocate for victims and their families. On March 6, 1998, a 28-year-old drunk driver speeding 25 miles per hour above the limit crossed over the median on a road in South Buffalo and struck Russo's sister, Karen Kwiatkowski, who was riding in the passenger's seat while her friend drove. Karen, an 18-year-old freshman at St. Bonaventure home from spring break at the time, didn't survive, and her friend suffered permanent leg damage.
The driver spent 10 years in prison, but he'd already gamed the system just a few hours before killing Karen. Earlier that evening, police administered a breathalyzer to him after a gas station attendant had noticed he'd seemed slightly intoxicated, and although he didn't blow above the legal limit, they booked him into jail for his prior convictions and driving without a license. Then he posted bail and got right back in the car.
His first stop was the bar to drink some more, and his subsequent choice to get back behind the wheel claimed Karen Kwiatkowski's life. So if there's anyone who knows the unspeakable pain of drunk driving consequences, it's Deanna Russo, who must now explain to her four-year-old and one-year-old daughters that they'll never get to meet their Aunt Karen.
"She's missed all of this. She's missed seeing her nieces," Russo said. "It's not just my life impacted, not just my parents. Now, it's my kids."
But Russo said a shaming tactic would do little to curb intoxicated driving: "only if the person really feels the impact, will that actually [work]," she says.
Elizabeth Obad, the President of Erie County Mothers Against Drunk Driving, lost her son almost two decades ago in a drunk driving accident and agrees wholeheartedly with Russo.
Obad said her campaign to eliminate drunk driving has never included shaming tactics— because she said they don't work.
"MADD works on things that we know work, based on research and scientific-based research," Obad said. "I know that other states do other things, but we don't have any intent on [DWI shaming] with MADD or in New York right now."
In addition to continuing to push for tougher penalties in New York, Obad said the next wave of the future could be "passive technology" in cars to prevent any person from drinking and driving in the first place. This new technology would be sensor-based to catch drivers who try to turn on the ignition while intoxicated, which could theoretically be implemented into all new vehicles. Obad said she believes this technology isn't far off, either, estimating it could become mainstream within five years.
Her goal is to create technology as commonplace as an airbag or seatbelt.
"People still aren't getting the message," Obad said.
Russo's main push is for judges to enforce stricter penalties, noting that sentences can vary drastically from case-to-case.
"Right now, we're taking a look at what's currently on the books, and we're seeing how we can make them stricter… how the penalties can be changed to make sure they fit the crime," Russo said. "Is it being followed in the courtrooms? And what can we do to hopefully save more lives on the roads?"
An event for Karen Kwiatkowski's scholarship fund will be held January 25, 2014. It will be called "Bowling for Karen," held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Abbott Lanes on 1840 Abbott Road in Lackawanna. For more information, visit the CAID website.