It was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) that helped popularize the term “designated driver.” This year, MADD Mid-Atlantic is celebrating “36 Years of the Designated Driver,” the sober companion who will get everyone in the car home safely.
The organization is dedicated to educating people on the dangers of driving while intoxicated, offering safe transportation options for those who choose to drink at events and advocating for legislation meant to penalize and discourage drunk driving.
Much of MADD’s programming takes place during the December holiday season, due to the increase in drinking and driving during that time. On New Year’s Eve, drunk driving-related deaths are 116% higher common than average, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk driving-related deaths are 116% more common than average.
“The sad part is that two out of three people are impacted by impaired drivers in their lifetime,” said Richard Leotta, a member of MADD Mid-Atlantic’s board of directors. “That information is scary stuff, but [spreading it] is how we make change.”
Many of MADD’s volunteers have been affected by drunk drivers. Leotta’s Jewish son, Noah Leotta, was a Montgomery County police officer who was killed in the line of duty by a drunk driver in December 2015.
He was part of the Montgomery County Police Department’s holiday alcohol task force. Noah had pulled over a suspected impaired driver, and while he was out of his vehicle, he was struck by another impaired driver. He died from his injuries seven days later.
“The media was trying to get a hold of us after it happened,” recalled Leotta. “We left the country for a week. It gave us the opportunity for the numbness to wear off and for us to come to terms with what we would be dealing with for the rest of our lives.”
Afterward, he joined MADD as a victim advocate. In the seven years since, Leotta has helped push for more comprehensive legislation against impaired driving. Noah’s Law, named for his son, is one such piece of legislation. Based on a law that MADD had been trying to pass at the time of Noah’s death, it requires offenders of impaired driving to use a breathalyzer device in order to gain access to their cars and ensure that they are sober before they drive.
Drunk driving is something “that’s 100% preventable,” said Julia Halberstam, a program specialist at MADD Mid-Atlantic’s Glenwood office. “At MADD, we help each other deal with it in different ways. I’ve seen people who became volunteers after being impacted by drunk drivers, and MADD helped them blossom into advocates against drinking and driving.”
MADD is continuing to advocate for victims of drunk-driving incidents, teaching in schools about the dangers of impaired driving and trying to reduce the rate of drunk driving incidents in the country. Halberstam is involved in programming targeting underage drinking, and creates programming for middle- and high-schoolers to teach them about the dangers of impaired driving.
MADD is also working with the alcohol industry to create messaging that discourages impaired driving.
“We want the public to be educated, and for legislators to do the right thing,” said Leotta. “That’s all we’re asking them for; it’s not anything hard. I can’t bring Noah back, but I can make sure that no one else suffers his fate.”