By MARY HOOD HART
It was a small article, tucked away on page 4C, but reading it, I got chills. A high school volleyball player, Carla Edwards, 16, and her coach, Paul Millska, were killed when the bus they were traveling in was slammed head on by a tractor-trailer crossing the center line on a winding mountain road. The night of the crash, the volleyball team from a school in North Carolina had been traveling home from a tournament. The driver of the tractor trailer, Wendell Perkins, 33, was charged with driving while impaired and second degree murder. This was not his first offense. Perkins had been convicted of DWI in 1994, and his license at that time was suspended for a year. However, because he was appealing the conviction, Perkins was allowed to keep his commercial license until the case was resolved.
This story struck a nerve with me because my daughter plays volleyball on her high school team. In fact, this week she travels to Greensboro, N.C., a three-hour one way drive, for a conference tournament. What happened to Carla Edwards could have happened to my daughter. Yes, this newspaper article about a tragedy on a twisting mountain road speaks to one of my own worst fears. Parents whose children are involved in athletics or extracurricular activities requiring travel to and from events understand this fear. We try to convince ourselves our children will be fine. And we pray that as the buses transport our children, they won’t encounter drivers like Wendell Perkins.
According to the news report, Perkins’ driving record, dating back to 1980, included nine speeding tickets, a citation for running a stop sign, driving without a license, and driving without insurance. In addition to the crash with the team’s bus, Perkins was involved In four wrecks. Despite all this, Perkins was driving with a valid license the night his truck crossed the center line and smashed head-on into the bus transporting the volleyball team.
Perkins’ driving record and this most recent outcome of his recklessness make an excellent argument for reforming drivers’ licensing laws. Why should a man convicted of DWI be allowed to keep his commercial license while the conviction is under appeal? Allowing Perkins to continue driving is no less dangerous than allowing a convicted child molester to continue operating a day care center while his case is appealed.
Those tempted to feel sorry for Perkins because his livelihood depends on his ability to drive need only review his despicable record. Responsible drivers, even those with very bad luck, would not come close to accruing so many violations. Isn’t it time we stop bending over backwards to make life convenient for those who’ve proven themselves too irresponsible to share our highways?
Statistically, the gravest threat to our safety on the road are drivers who consistently ignore traffic laws. They drive with suspended licenses, no insurance, intoxicated, recklessly. And, like Perkins, regardless of such violations, they often drive until they kill. Their driving histories reflect a complete disregard for safety and the rules of the road. Why should we continue to protect their privileges at the risk of innocent lives?
Most people drive responsibly. Some may get a speeding ticket once in a blue moon, but the violations stop there. We don’t drive drunk. We don’t drive without insurance. We certainly don’t drive with suspended licenses. We consider driving the serious responsibility and privilege it is. Chronic offenders, however, are a different story.
They are notoriously unable or unwilling to straighten up. Most of them will continue to drive until they are forcibly stopped.
The most eff ective and widespread public service campaigns about drinking and driving will do nothing to prevent the drivers like Wendell Perkins from threatening the safety of our roadways. A previous DWI conviction did nothing to stop him from drinking and driving this time with horrifying consequences. Two lives are lost because the courts deemed it more important to let the man drive his tractor trailer than to protect whoever happened to encounter him on his most recent reckless drive. Wendell Perkins was given one too many chances to keep his license. As a result, Carla Edwards and her coach were given no chance at all.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield Cape Girardeau, Missouri.