She relives severe crash to reduce drunken driving First-time offenders must listen to stories of tragedy and loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Susan Giddings relives her family's tragedy every time she talks to a drunken driver.

Standing before a group of recently convicted drunken drivers, Ms. Giddings recounted how an intoxicated man slammed his truck into the family van, severely injuring her nephew and killing his father and half-sister.

"Our lives changed," the North Laurel woman told the solemn crowd. "These are things you can't go back and erase." For Ms. Giddings, the pain of retelling her story at monthly Victim Impact Panels sponsored by Howard County's Mothers Against Drunk Driving is worth it if she prevents one person's moment of idiocy from turning into a family's lifetime of anguish.

Jose Antonio George heard Ms. Giddings' story because he had -- he was one of more than 40 people ordered by county judges to attend September's victim-impact session.

Almost all of the county's first-time driving-while-intoxicated offenders -- about half of the county's total DWI arrests in a given month -- must attend.

But the Columbia resident left the session with a new perspective: Not to allow Ms. Giddings' story to become reality for his family.

"God knows only what could have happened to me," said Mr. George, who was stopped by a police officer for driving 86 mph in a 45-mph zone and charged with driving while intoxicated last April.

A nephew's pain

Ms. Giddings, a 43-year-old graphic artist, began raising her nephew and a niece for her sister 20 years ago, growing to look upon them as her own children.

Her nephew, George Bowen, was 16 the evening of June 28, 1989. He'd just completed his first day of work at his father's trash-removal business. Gary Bowen, 37, took his son fishing near Poolesville in Montgomery County after work. They piled into a van with Mr. Bowen's 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, and his two other sons, ages 8 and 15. Three friends went along.

That evening, Ms. Giddings was stocking shelves at her part-time job as a clerk at a Laurel video store when the telephone rang. It was her mother, crying hysterically. All the woman could say was that George Bowen was hurt.

Ms. Giddings rushed home, expecting to find an ambulance in the driveway, expecting to learn her nephew had somehow broken a leg or arm. But he wasn't there. He was in Suburban Hospital outside Washington.

When she arrived at the hospital, a waiting-room television showed a report about a crash in which several children were injured along White's Ferry Road in Poolesville. But Ms. Giddings didn't put two and two together.

"It was really, really strange," she said. "There was a dreamlike quality to everything."

Once reality sank in, Ms. Giddings learned that Mr. Bowen and his daughter were killed. Eight people were injured, including her nephew, who suffered two broken bones in his left leg, broken bones his right hand, a ruptured spleen and a concussion.

The drunken driver of the truck that collided head-on with Mr. Bowen's Ford van also died.

Ms. Giddings said her nephew remembers little about the collision. But he has reminders of it -- a rod in his leg, a scar from his chest to his navel, occasional aches in his hand and knee.

He doesn't like to talk about the crash, she said, and he doesn't like her talking about the crash either, even at MADD's impact panels.

"At first, he was totally against it," said Ms. Giddings, who started giving the presentations last year. "But he's starting to realize that talking about this will get someone to remember not to drink and drive."

A driver's vow

Her story touched Mr. George, a 37-year-old resident of Columbia's Long Reach village, who vows never again to drive while drunk.

"When you hear of somebody else's family, it made me think of my own family," said Mr. George, who has three children. "I would never want to take my children's future away."

He recalled how he and a friend were drinking beer while watching a basketball game at his apartment one night in April. His friend needed a ride home to Baltimore. Mr. George's wife was asleep, so he decided to take him.

A Howard County police officer was on radar duty along U.S. 40 near Patapsco Valley State Park when he spotted a speeding Chevrolet Cavalier -- Mr. George driving back to Columbia.

"I was trying to get home," said Mr. George. "I was tired. It was late."

The officer pulled over the car and noticed a strong odor of alcohol from Mr. George, according to a report filed in Howard District Court. The officer had him take a breath test, on which he registered a 0.13 -- above the legal limit of 0.10, the report says.

Charged with driving while intoxicated, Mr. George pleaded guilty in District Court on Aug. 31. He was given probation before judgment, which means he won't have a criminal record if he completes the terms of his probation -- including attendance at MADD's victim-impact panel.

Mr. George is a typical first-time DWI offender in Howard's District Court.

Repeat DWI offenders are often given jail terms, but first-time offenders seldom go to jail. Nevertheless, officials take first-time offenses seriously, Assistant State's Attorney Janine Rice said.

Ms. Rice said the goal of prosecutors and judges is to prevent first-time defendants from repeating their mistakes, so attendance at MADD's sessions often is part of their sentences.

'Never been caught before'

The prosecutor said she believes most first-time offenders have driven while drunk before. "They just have never been caught before."

DWI arrests and deaths in alcohol-related crashes are declining in Howard County.

In 1994, Howard had four deaths in alcohol-related crashes and 1,351 DWI arrests, compared with eight deaths and 1,414 arrests in 1991, according to statistics provided by the county Police Department.

Sgt. Steven Keller, a police spokesman, attributes this decline to police programs aimed at preventing drunken driving, such as sobriety checkpoints and DWI patrols.

Programs such as MADD's victim-impact sessions help persuade people not to drive when they're drunk, Sergeant Keller said. "Unless you're pretty callous, it's going to have an effect on you."

Ms. Giddings advises people who have been drinking to call a taxi or get a sober driver. To her, driving on Maryland's congested highways is risky enough without adding alcohol to the mix. "It's like Russian roulette," she said.

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