Budget cuts take MADD out of Alaska drunken driving debate

Kyle Hopkins
Erik Hill

A drunken driver ran down two young people as they walked beside the road on a weekend afternoon, killing them both. The parents withdrew in grief. An Alaska community watched in outrage.

It happened 30 years ago in Girdwood, and it led to the creation of the first Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter in Alaska.

The nonprofit grew to include teams in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, successfully pushed to lower the legal alcohol limit for drunken driving in Alaska and sent volunteers to bird-dog DUI cases from courtroom pews.

Dale Fox, president of the state liquor industry association, said he lived in Girdwood at the time of the Alyeska Highway crash. He remembers the fallout. "What happened was MADD, and significant awareness and the lowering of (the legal blood-alcohol limit) to .08 and a wonderful bike trail that parallels the road," Fox said.

Jump ahead to 2013, and Anchorage is grappling with another suspected drunken driving crash that killed another two young people.

Police say Stacey Allen Graham lost control of his speeding pickup and slammed into 15-year-olds Jordyn Durr and Brooke McPheters as the girls walked on an Abbott Road sidewalk on Friday evening. The case -- Graham, 31, is charged with second-degree murder -- raises a fresh round of questions about the depth of Alaska's drinking and driving problem.

You might assume MADD is leading the conversation. You'd be wrong.


There is no longer a statewide director for MADD in Alaska and no paid employees. Only Fairbanks retains a small volunteer branch with an annual budget under $10,000. The national nonprofit shuttered its Anchorage office in 2006.

"We used to have a presence in all 50 states but with the downturn in the economy we lost some funding," said national MADD spokesman James Bryant.

Dwindling donations forced the organization to cut its workforce by about 20 percent, he said.

Today, MADD employs a statewide executive director in 17 states. Unlike Alaska, most states have at least one paid worker, Bryant said. "It's dependent upon where we can raise the dollars to support those offices."

Former MADD officials say the group's disappearance leaves a hole for a non-government, statewide voice for victims of alcohol abuse, particularly faced with a well organized and politically active liquor lobby.

The industry, through the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailers Association, employs a top Juneau lobbyist to fight efforts to tighten alcohol laws. The group wrote 50 checks totaling more than $21,000 to candidates for state Legislature last year.

An Alaska CHARR convention in September will advise members on ways to beat back crusaders' efforts to install ignition interlock sensors in every car, raise alcohol taxes and lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from .08 to .05, according to the brochure.

Fox, the bar and restaurant association president, said much has changed since the 1980s with alcohol-related traffic deaths in steep decline. MADD made a difference nationwide encouraging lawmakers to adopt laws that reduced drunken driving, he said, but later adopted a broad anti-alcohol agenda.

"MADD and many other organizations ... have departed from their original mission of making the streets safer and turned into neo-prohibitionist organizations that would like to outlaw alcohol in our nation," he said.

Only eight states drink more per capita than Alaska, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

When the Legislature debated a proposal to move the state board that regulates the liquor industry from the law-enforcement-minded Department of Public Safety to the pro-business Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, MADD was nowhere to be found in the argument.

The regulatory board's director argued against the move, as did police chiefs, substance abuse experts and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. More than a dozen bar owners and liquor industry officials testified that it was a good idea and the Legislature approved the switch last year.


When lawmakers propose changing liquor laws, several groups routinely argue for tighter controls, Fox said, including the governor's Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence and state health officials.

Marti Greeson, the executive director for Alaska MADD when the office closed, now manages a prisoner re-entry program at the Alaska Native Justice Center.

While drunken driving deaths in Alaska numbered in the dozens, hundreds of people were dying in larger states, she said of MADD's decision to dissolve the Anchorage office. "They were looking at very hard numbers and where they were going to have the greatest impact, and Alaska just kind of fell off the grid."

Some of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving work continues. In Fairbanks, the volunteer MADD chapter hosts classes for first-time drunken drivers in a rented classroom where offenders meet people whose family members were killed in crashes. .

A small private group holds similar court-ordered meetings at an Anchorage church, said Allen Bailey, a former Anchorage municipal prosecutor and a founding member of the first Alaska MADD board.

While the group enjoyed some victories over 25 years in Alaska, other ideas, such as installing roadblock sobriety checkpoints, never took hold despite decades of trying, he said.

Bailey now works on family law cases like divorces and custody battles. MADD mattered as a voice on Alaska policy battles because it carried a household name and had a track record of reducing alcohol-related deaths, he said.

As MADD faded from Southcentral, other groups began to grow. Wasilla couple Royal and Nancy Bidwell started a nonprofit in 2005 dedicated to Nancy's 17-year-old daughter Shelly, who was killed when a drunken driver smashed head-on into her car on Minnesota Drive.

Nancy Bidwell said she and her husband have testified on alcohol laws before the Legislature and Anchorage Assembly but focus primarily on telling the stories of drunken-driving victims and survivors in a series of books and school visits.

The Friday crash that killed two high school sophomores in South Anchorage brought new attention to drinking and driving in the state, Bidwell said. Fifty people called her on Monday. Some are surprised to hear MADD is gone. All want to help.

"This is good. They're finally angry," she said.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.


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