How 2 chronic drunken drivers menaced lives

January 01, 1995|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Joe Crown and John Ware were members of an American brotherhood, drinkers who drive.

They were not acquainted, but their bond was the bottle and the automobile. Nothing deterred them, short of jail. They prospered in a culture that remains tolerant of men and women who drive drunk, again and again, despite the lives they take and the heartache they inflict.

Across the nation, policy-makers have begun to focus on the disproportionate role that chronic drunks play in alcohol-related crashes, especially fatal crashes.

As traffic safety specialists search for ways to curtail the carnage, they are attempting to understand attitudes that shape the behavior of habitual drinkers.

Joe Crown and John Ware could be case studies: They represent extremes of the persistent drunken driver population: those who repeatedly are caught driving drunk and the many thousands of others who escape detection.

Joe Crown was a repeat offender. A lawyer with a solid practice, he had a beach house in Rehoboth and he owned the Prince George's County building where he practiced law. He had degrees from University of Maryland and American University, in Washington, D.C.

"I drank in the best places with the right people -- doctors, lawyers, police officers, assistant state's attorneys. They all drank where I did," he said.

His wife was unimpressed. "You need to get caught," he said she told him. He was caught. Driving his Cadillac with its customized Rolls-Royce grill, he was arrested as many as 20 times, according to judges and a probation officer who dealt with him over the years.

Motor Vehicle Administration and District Court records show that eight times between 1988 and 1990 he was convicted of driving drunk or driving under the influence. He was convicted of a half-dozen other offenses: driving while his license was suspended, failing to stay right of the center line and the like. His lawyers managed to get him off with relatively light sentences and he always got his license back.

John Ware's driving record was clean, though he rarely drove sober. He was arrested only once -- after he caused a crash that killed a 28-year-old woman.

Hours after a Friday night binge, his blood alcohol level, measured after the crash, was .23 percent, more than double the state threshold for driving while intoxicated. During 18 years of heavy drinking, he had been stopped twice but allowed to go on his way both times.

Those like Mr. Ware who are not arrested are by far the largest group, specialists say.

Calculations based on surveys at sobriety checkpoints suggest that the chances of a drunken driver getting caught are on the order of 2,000 to 1. Stated another way, 2,000 drunken driving "trips" may occur before there is a single arrest.

Joe Crown's driving record was without blemish, too, until he was 50.

"Was I driving drunk in those years? The answer is, 'Yes.' " he said.

'Many escape arrest'

The ease of eluding detection and punishment probably emboldens drunks.

"Many frequent repeat drunk drivers escape arrest altogether," said Ralph Hingson and Nancy Isaac, authors of a study and public health researchers at Boston University and Harvard University, respectively.

"An important consideration regarding persistent drinking drivers is that their own experiences of making frequent trips while intoxicated and seldom if ever being stopped may reduce the credibility of enforcement publicity efforts," according to their study.

Mr. Ware said the evasion plays neatly into the alcoholic's other disease: "the disease of denial." To avoid his wife's admonitions to get help, he moved his drinking to the garage, where he sat with his two cars, downing vodka in solitude.

He told himself he did his best driving after drinking. When he was between the ages of 19 and 38, he said, drunken driving was the only kind he did.

He had a good job as a sheet metal mechanic at the Government Printing Office in Washington and rarely missed a day of work. But outside the job his life was a cycle of drinking, passing out and coming to.

But he told himself he wasn't an alcoholic because he wasn't a dirty and jobless vagrant. He had those cars, both paid for.

Then on May 18, 1985, his drinking and driving caused a woman to die. In the ensuing year, he was remorseful and suicidal, once driving his car into a tree deliberately.

He did not go to trial for one year and continued to drink and to drive. He was convicted of several charges and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after a year.

"Maybe if I had been arrested earlier, it would have opened my eyes," he said.

Sober now at 46, Mr. Ware is a weekly volunteer alcoholism counselor and he speaks frequently throughout the state at public forums on drunken driving.

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