Mo. billboards honor drunk driving victims
One-third of all traffic fatalities in 2008 involved drunk drivers
By Jam Salter
FLORISSANT, Mo. — Gail Rehme knows she'll never shake the memory of that June night in 1984 - the late-night knock on the door, the hushed talk in the living room. Odd, the 10-year-old girl thought, that the pastor would come over so late.
The next morning, Gail's father called the family together. Her big brother, David, had been killed by a drunken driver on his way home from a Cardinals baseball game.
Last month, after years of urging by Rehme, Missouri joined a growing list of states offering roadside signs to both honor victims of drunken driving crashes and to encourage safe driving. The first sign installed under what has been dubbed "David's Law" is along Interstate 270 in St. Louis County and honors 19-year-old David Poenicke - Rehme's brother.
"If somebody sees it and realizes somebody died because of a drunk driver, and if it deters just one person from drinking and driving, the job's done," said Rehme, now 36.
Federal statistics show that nearly 12,000 people died in drunken driving crashes across the country in 2008 - or nearly one-third of all traffic fatalities.
Across America, makeshift memorials dot two-lane roads, highways and interstates, sad tributes to people killed in crashes. Some feature crosses, teddy bears or flowers. Others have Bibles or pictures of the victim.
Highway departments worry people will be hit while putting up or tending the homemade memorials or that they will distract drivers rubbernecking to get a look. They are illegal in many states, though experts say those laws are rarely enforced out of sympathy and support for victims' families.
Missouri and at least five other states _ California, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Texas - now offer something of a compromise with state-sanctioned signs. Most contain simple messages aimed at both honoring the victim and delivering a message of safety.
In both Texas and Illinois, the signs read "Please Don't Drink and Drive," and list the name of the deceased with the date of the crash.
Missouri's sign reads, "Drunk Driving Victim" and includes the victim's initials, the month and year he or she was killed and the phrase, "Think About It."
Relatives typically have to pay for the signs. California charges $1,000 and signs stay in place for seven years. In Texas, signs cost $300 and are given to the victim's family after one year. Illinois signs cost $150 for the safe driving message alone or $200 to include the victim's name and date of the crash.
Missouri charges $600 for signs that stay up for 10 years. Rehme operates a nonprofit called "Who's Next?" that raises money to help families pay for the signs.
Other states are taking different approaches to honor crash victims, including those killed in drunken driving wrecks. Some, including Illinois, have begun tree-planting programs. Delaware has drawn praise for a memorial garden at a roadside rest area that includes bricks with the names of nearly 600 accident victims.
"I think that's something that states can do that gives relatives a respectful place to mourn and limits the number of these memorials that can be potential traffic hazards," said Sean Slone, transportation policy analyst for the Council of State Governments, based in Lexington, Ky.
Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman Sandy Hentges estimated there are hundreds of homemade memorials along the state's roads. Along with the hazards, they can become a nuisance for MoDOT crews to mow around and, if left unattended, an eyesore.
The new roadside signs won't replace all of those memorials. So far, just five other applications have been approved.
"Hopefully these new signs will help to bring attention to this issue and get people to think twice before driving impaired," said Leanna Depue, director of MoDOT's highway safety division.
For Rehme, passage of David's Law and the posting of the sign was the culmination of what has become her life's work. She was president of her local Students Against Driving Drunk chapter by junior high, and as an adult has worked to raise awareness about the perils of drunken driving. She worked with lawmakers for years toward passage of David's Law.
Her brother was a die-hard Cardinals fan. In June 1984, he and his girlfriend went to a game and were riding home on his motorcycle when one of them spilled soda on the seat.
Poenicke pulled over to clean up the mess. They were on the shoulder of I-270 - almost home - when another motorist who had been at the game struck them. Poenicke's girlfriend suffered a broken leg. He was killed instantly. The driver had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14. Missouri's current legal limit is 0.08.
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"It's not that I needed to have this tribute to my brother," Rehme said. "We just need to raise awareness that it's such a senseless thing."