Parents Driving Drunk Endanger Most Vulnerable: Their Own Children

Parents Driving DrunkCourtesy Carl McDonald
After her mother's drinking got out of hand, 5-year-old Carlie went to live with her father, Carl, a Wyoming state trooper. Then, one fateful New Year's, Susan McDonald called to say she wanted to spend time with her daughter.

It is a behavior that's hard to fathom -- parents driving drunk with their children in the car. Yet studies show that two thirds of children who die in drunken driving accidents are killed by the very people in charge of caring for them.

"Criminal behavior that puts our children at risk" is inexcusable," said Carl McDonald, a former lieutenant with the Wyoming State Highway Patrol. McDonald said he considers combating drunk driving his life's work.

Parents Driving Drunk Endanger KidsPlay

"As a trooper, I was very aggressive on drunk driving, and I was proud of my ability to pick up on that," McDonald said in a recent interview in New York. "I would walk up to a car and from eight feet away on initial contact with the driver of a car, I can tell you whether or not that driver was sober or intoxicated."

But there would be one drunken driver whom McDonald did not suspect, and who changed his life forever.

Parents Driving DrunkPlay

"I was living my life around a woman who was intoxicated often and [I] didn't know it," said McDonald.

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Click HERE for tips for kids and adults on how to deal with parents driving drunk with kids in the car.

The woman McDonald says he didn't suspect was his wife, Susan, a dispatcher with the sheriff's department, and the mother of their only child, Carlie.

Susan McDonald says her drinking increased over the years and, at her worst, she was a raging alcoholic.

"I'm sure I was drinking at least a fifth of whiskey a day," she told "20/20." "And I was driving."

Because of her drinking, Susan lost her job, her three-year marriage to Carl ended and, in the divorce, Carl sought and won primary custody of Carlie.

For two-and-a-half years, Susan would see Carlie on a regular basis, but then Susan's drinking escalated and, for several months, she couldn't bring herself to see her daughter, as difficult as that was for her, she said.

Parents Driving Drunk: A Fatal New Year's

"Carlie was born when I was in my mid-thirties, so I was more comfortable being a mom," said Susan. "She was just a good little person."

It's a sentiment that Carl shares.

"She was a social creature," he said. "When she got around other children she would jump right in, and she had a tendency to take charge of things."

Carl and Carlie were very close, spending lots of father-daughter time -- camping, fishing. Carlie would even help Carl at work.

"We did a number of programs with other children together where we demonstrated how seat belts work," said Carl. "She wouldn't let you start a car without fastening your seat belt."

Carl was spending more time with Carlie, as Susan spent less. Carl had his suspicions that Susan's drinking was why she wasn't seeing Carlie, he said. Then, after Christmas in 1997, Susan called, wanting to spend New Year's with Carlie.

"I was worried, as always, about my daughter's safety, but I was also in this position with court orders that said I would not interfere with custody, visitation, lifestyle issues," said Carl.

So Susan picked up her 5-year-old, and they headed to Susan's home. On New Year's Day, Carl called to wish Carlie a happy 1998.

"As usual, I told her I loved her," he said. "I knew that she would be coming to my house the next day, and I told her I couldn't wait to see her again."

Later that day, after Susan had been drinking, she took Carlie out to visit her older daughter. Physically unable to get the child into her car seat, Susan put her in the front, where Carlie dutifully buckled up.

Then Susan, driving at high speed on an interstate ramp, rammed the back of a tractor trailer.

"The next thing I remember is somebody talking to me outside my window," said Susan. "I was in and out of consciousness, and they said, You've been in an accident."

Carl remembers that day vividly.

"When I got to my driveway, I pulled up to the house and this trooper came over to my window and he said there's been a crash, a bad crash and I have to take you over right away.

"And at the front door he grabbed my elbow and he said, 'Carlie didn't make it.' At that moment my world came to an end."

'The Wound That Never Heals'

Susan was hospitalized with multiple injuries, including a broken back. She was found to have a blood alcohol level of .22 -- more than twice the legal limit.

Carl dealt with some of his grief by pushing for a tough sentence for his ex-wife. Susan was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to two to five years, less than what Carl had hoped for. She ultimately spent 14 months in prison, but her self-imposed punishment, she said, never ends.

"It's the wound that never heals," she said. "It never heals. No matter what I do, I can't go to prison and serve a term and get her back. I can't go to church and sit through services and get her back. I can't get her back. Bottom line, I can't get her back, no matter what I do."

For Carl, the death of his daughter inspired him to leave the highway patrol and join forces with Mothers Against Drunk Driving as National Law Enforcement Initiative Manager. One of his first duties was to educate people about cases like Carlie's.

"What we've learned after my daughter's crash, through two studies, is that over two thirds of these kids are killed by people that are supposed to be the caretakers of these children," Carl said. "It's not the other guy. It's the driver of the car that the children are driving in."

Lobbying for stiffer sentences in such cases has become a priority for MADD.

"We believe that if you're driving [drunk] with a child under 16, that's a form of child neglect," said Laura Dean-Mooney, the national president of MADD. "They don't have a choice whether to get in the car with you oftentimes. We need to make sure they have a sober designated driver every time they are put in the car."

MADD is also pushing for known offenders to have mandatory interlocks, devices that require the driver to pass a breathalyzer test, before the car can start. Interlocks weren't available when Carlie died, but Carl wishes they had been.

Drunken Driving: Keys to Prevention

"If I had the option of interlock devices being placed in the car of people who would transport my daughter, I'd have jumped at that," Carl said.

It's something Susan would have wanted as well. "If somebody would have kept after me, I mean I would have been mad," she said. "I would have been so mad, I couldn't stand it. But I'd have a daughter today."

Carl said the pain would never disappear.

"A huge piece of us is gone forever," he said. "It's hideous because it doesn't leave a scar and you can't see it, but it's there."

The loss, said Susan, made her never take a drink again. The sorrow, she says, is constant. It's why she now works at Jubilee House, a halfway house, counseling alcoholics and women coming out of prison. It is also why, despite the pain, she spoke with "20/20."

"I don't ever want another parent to have to feel this way," she said. "I don't want another parent to lose a baby they could have protected."

Click HERE for tips for kids and adults on how to deal with parents driving drunk with kids in the car.