Personal loss fuels anti-drunken driving crusader


In her office, Bonnie Cook, head of Howard County's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter, keeps a grim reminder of what happens when people drink and drive.

"This is Richard Daley. He died," Ms. Cook says, pointing to a color photograph of a man on "The Heart of MADD," a large wooden memorial that features 15 pictures of people who have died in drunken driving accidents.

On July 1, Ms. Cook, 46, took over as president of the 6-year-old, 130-member chapter of MADD. Since losing a brother to a drunken driving accident in 1981, Ms. Cook has become increasingly involved in the fight against drunken driving, underage drinking, liquor sales to minors and substance abuse.

The local group is part of Texas-based MADD, which was established 14 years ago to fight drinking and driving. Organizers estimate that drunken driving has killed 250,000 people and hurt 6.4 million in the past decade.

Thirty volunteers support the local MADD chapter, which has an annual budget of $20,000, Ms. Cook said. This year, she and the chapter plan a campaign involving 200,000 red ribbons and an expanded taxi service for bar patrons.

To raise funds for such projects, the chapter will sponsor a yard sale Sept. 24, hoping to top the $1,600 it raised last year.

"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go," Ms. Cook said, noting that the chapter's budget was $40,000 several years ago. "Giving has gone down because of the recession and because we're not that much in the public's eye. We're old hat."

In MADD's Ellicott City office hang pictures of the daughter of a former MADD president and her fiance, who were killed in 1987 "a couple of weeks before their wedding," said Ms. Cook.

The photographs are also part of the display set up to personalize the tragedies caused by drunken driving.

"We ask victims to take and decorate a heart to remind them of someone who was injured or killed due to drunk driving," Ms. Cook said.

She joined MADD as a volunteer five years ago after seeing a newspaper advertisement, but Ms. Cook has lived with the pain of loss since the 1981 accident that claimed the life of her brother, Steve Jenkins of LaVale in Western Maryland.

In retrospect, she said, her brother's death at age 20 was foreshadowed by years of drinking and driving.

At age 16, weeks after getting his driver's license, her brother, driving with friends and drinking beer, slammed his car into the rear of a state trooper's, Ms. Cook said. A year later, he drove down an embankment in an accident that killed his best friend.

In the accident that killed him, "he failed to negotiate a curve and went off a cliff, and the car landed on its roof and killed him," Ms. Cook said.

Ms. Cook works daily to prevent others from experiencing that pain and to call attention to the issue.

"Drunk driving is not considered a violent crime or a serious crime," she said, noting that the newly passed federal crime bill doesn't even mention it.

But victims grieve, suffer financial hardships and are victimized again by the court system, she said. "If you take it to court, [the drunken driver] will get a $100 fine and a slap on the wrist," Ms. Cook said.

To help publicize the seriousness of drunken driving, Ms. Cook tells her own story to people found guilty of drunken driving who are ordered by the court to attend sessions known as "victim impact panels."

"When we do the panels, some people take the time to come up and thank us for having courage to stand up and tell our stories," Ms. Cook said. "Others could care less."

The Western Maryland native said cooperation from Howard County's police and fire departments and the county executive make the county's MADD chapter one of the best in the state.

"When I first came here, I really didn't think of myself as a victim," said Ms. Cook, who gradually came to realize how much she and her family had been affected by her brother's death.

Joyce L. Brown, the county's substance abuse impact coordinator, sees Ms. Cook as a leader. She said Ms. Cook works with various agencies and addresses all alcohol- and drug-related issues.

"She's a phenomenal person. She really is," Ms. Brown said, adding that Ms. Cook focuses on the broad scope of issues connected with drunken driving, including substance abuse of other kinds.

Maj. Mark Paterni, commander of the county Police Department's field operations bureau, said Ms. Cook has volunteered with the department to make it more effective and has made the highways safer by educating the public about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"She's just a very energetic, pleasant person who seems to have the welfare of the community at heart," he said.

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