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Summer 2008 | Vol. 10 | No. 4
Family’s Tragedy Leads to New Tools to Fight Drunk Driving
By: Maureen Sczpanski, Public Information Officer
New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety
On Saturday, July 22, 2000, Bill and Muriel Elliott, of Egg Harbor Township New Jersey, received the horrific phone call parents fear the most. Their son, Navy Ensign John Robert Elliott, had been killed in a drunk driving crash.
The crash that took 21-year-old Ensign Elliott's life was caused by a motorist who had been arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated earlier in the evening. After being released to a friend, the driver got back behind the wheel, where he collided head-on with John's vehicle, killing both of them. That evening, John and his girlfriend Kristen, who was in the car at the time of the crash and survived, were on their way home from Annapolis, Maryland to celebrate his mother's birthday.
Shortly after John's death, the Elliott family approached State representatives about strengthening New Jersey's drunk driving laws. The tragic loss of John's life served as the driving force behind the Elliott's commitment to ensuring no other family would have to endure the overwhelming sadness and grief they now faced every day.
In September of 2000, the John Elliott Law, now known as John's Law, was introduced in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly. The bill gave police the authority to impound the vehicles of drunk drivers for 12 hours. The law also required drunk drivers be detained until they are sober or a friend or relative takes legal written responsibility for ensuring they do not get behind the wheel while they are still drunk. Both John's father and Kristen testified before the Legislature and presented more than 8,500 signatures supporting the bill. In April of 2001, John's Law was signed. A few years later, John's Law II was passed, giving municipalities the authority to enact laws that require police to make sure a drunk driver remains in protective custody for eight hours or until his or her BAC drops below .05.
While John's Law gave police additional tools to keep drunk drivers off the roadways, the Elliott family also recognized the need for increasing public awareness about the horrific consequences of drunk driving. With that in mind, the family simultaneously launched the HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers. Designed to encourage people to use a designated driver, the campaign uses posters, bumper sticker decals, billboards, and other items to help spread the message of staying safe and sober behind the wheel.
Through the campaign's Adopt- A-Tavern Program, volunteers encourage bar and tavern owners to display the posters and other collateral items, providing patrons with vital information on drunk driving. Participating restaurants or bars are encouraged to provide free non-alcoholic drinks to designated drivers and often sell HERO Campaign wristbands to those wishing to show their commitment to being a designated driver.
The New Jersey Restaurant Association, the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association and the New Jersey Beer Wholesalers have also supported the effort.
Along with restaurants and taverns, the HERO Campaign has successfully partnered with colleges and universities, major sports teams and many other public and private entities, to further promote the effort. The effort also includes extensive use of highway billboards across the country, as well as nationally distributed television public service announcements.
New Jersey was first in the nation to become an official HERO state. States across the nation have followed New Jersey's lead and adopted similar campaigns, including, most recently, New York, which embraced the program in March, 2008. To further encourage national involvement in the campaign, Governor Jon S. Corzine co-signed a letter of support with Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner that was distributed to their Democratic counterparts in seven states. In addition, the National Lieutenant Governor's Association Executive Committee unanimously endorsed the program in February 2008.
The New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety continues to work closely with the Elliotts on numerous drunk driving prevention initiatives.