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How broken hearts can save lives

Nov. 18, 2019

Barb Degnan speaks at a news conferene where a broken heart license plate is displayed

The holidays are a time when we need to strike a balance. On one hand, we get to see family and friends we don’t see very often. It’s fun to sit down, maybe have some drinks together, and catch up. But if we then get behind the wheel, we can deprive another family of seeing their loved one at the holidays — or ever again.

That was certainly the case for Barb Degnan, whose son Dan was killed by an impaired driver in a crash on Christmas Eve, 1992. He was just 20 years old. The selfish person who chose to get behind the wheel that night ensured that the holidays would be a time of mourning instead of joy for the Degnan family from that year on. “Dan was the joy of my life,” said Barb in a 2014 news conference, her voice shaking with emotion. “He was killed by an impaired driver.”

But Barb channeled her grief into action. For years, she worked with the state legislature and the Department of Public Safety to develop and design a license plate that would memorialize Dan and all those injured and killed by impaired drivers. It reads “Remembering Victims of Impaired Drivers,” and features a telling symbol of Barb’s grief: a broken heart. The broken heart plate was released in 2010, and nearly 1,700 Minnesota vehicles currently display it.

Dan was not the only victim of an impaired driver that year. In 1992 in Minnesota, 148 people were killed in drunk driving-related crashes. That number had dropped to 112 by the time his mom got the broken heart license plate into circulation in 2010, and it was down to 84 in 2018.

It is indeed encouraging that the number of impaired driving victims has dropped by 43 percent since that awful Christmas Eve in 1992, but there is so much more to do. That drop is due in part to activists like Barb, who hope these gestures will not only memorialize their loved ones but remind others to think twice before getting behind the wheel if they are impaired.

And there are many ways to avoid that situation, especially if you plan ahead: Order a cab or ride-share, designate a driver, or stay at the location of the party. Keep an eye on friends and make sure they don’t drive impaired. Offer to pick up a loved one anywhere, anytime, no questions asked.

If you see impaired driving behavior, call 911 and provide location, license plate number, if possible, and observed dangerous behavior. Law enforcement officers are working to keep all of us safe from the poor decisions of other drivers, and during the holidays, extra DWI enforcement helps remove dangerous drivers from the road.

There are so many ways to avoid the heartbreak that Barb’s family has had to endure for the past 27 years. There are so many ways to use a broken heart to save lives.