Donna McCain and her husband Mark tried not to assume the worst when they were woken by a ringing cell phone just before dawn.
It was the sheriff's office, and an officer with the Department of Public Safety needed someone to unlock the gate at the end of their driveway. That's all he said.
The McCains had one thought: their 19-year-old daughter, Meagan, who had just went off to Mesa Lands Community College in New Mexico. She was weeks away from starting her second year of school on a rodeo scholarship. She was also just weeks away from her 20th birthday.
The McCains live on a ranch just outside of Poteet. On the long walk down the gravel driveway, Mark McCain tried calling Meagan's cell phone over and over again. No answer.
He opened the gate for the officer, but the officer still wouldn't say the reason for his visit. He insisted they go inside and talk. More phone calls were made on the walk back to the house. Still no answer.
Once inside, the officer confirmed what the McCains were trying to keep out of their thoughts: Meagan was dead. She was killed by a drunken driver.
Texas isn't average
Meagan McCain was just one of 1,253 people killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those 1,253 deaths accounted for 40 percent of all driving fatalities in Texas. Nationwide, however, alcohol-involved accidents only account for about 30 percent of all fatal accidents.
Donna McCain knows these numbers well. Drinking and driving isn't just a problem in Texas, she said. "it's an epidemic."
"And I'm not saying that to be dramatic. And I'm not saying that because I've lost a child. I'm saying that because I've looked at the statistics," she said.
And she's right. The startling data from the NHTSA certainly show that drinking and driving is a very serious problem in Texas. The Lone Star State has maintained a commanding lead in deadly alcohol-related crashes for years.
Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities for 2011 (BAC=.08+) *most current statistics available
- Texas: 1,213
- California: 774
- Florida: 716
- Pennsylvania: 407
- North Carolina: 365
So blame law enforcement. Anyone looking at the numbers could easily point their finger at the highway patrol and local authorities for not preventing these impaired drivers from arming themselves with a two-ton heap of machinery.
But it's not the lack law enforcement, and it's not the lack of laws. If anyone is to blame, Donna McCain knows who's at fault.
"We're not following the old laws. What makes us think we're going to follow the new laws?" she said. "Police can't be everywhere all the time, and we don't want them to be."
Even so, police try pretty hard to be everywhere.
Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed said drinking and driving is a historic problem. In 2007, there were 1,333 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in Texas. That number has decreased almost every year since, but that's not to say that it's any less of a problem.
Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities in Texas (BAC .08+)
- 2007 - 1,333
- 2008 - 1,310
- 2009 - 1,253
- 2010 - 1,270
- 2011 - 1,213
Rather than blaming members of law enforcement, some may applaud them for bringing down the numbers. It's not like they're ignoring the issue.
And perhaps the reason the public believes drinking and driving is such a public health threat is due to awareness campaigns launched by local law enforcement.
- The Bexar County district attorney's office initiated a no-refusal policy in October 2011 that requires anyone arrested on suspicion of DWI to provide a breath or blood draw. The DA's office attributes 6,787 arrests to the new policy in its first full year.
- The DA's office is also actively pursuing murder charges against repeat offenders who have killed somebody in an accident. In April, 27-year-old Christopher Lamar became the first person in Bexar County to be convicted of murder charges because of previous DWI convictions.
- In preparation for San Antonio's 11-day Fiesta celebration, local law enforcement agencies targeted more than 3,200 Bexar County resident in an alcohol-related warrant roundup.
- Also during Fiesta, TxDOT and local law enforcement handed out $50,000 in taxi cab vouchers to help party-goers find a safe ride home even more easily. And for the third Fiesta season in a row, there were zero fatal or serious alcohol-involved accidents.
- Bexar County just announced a new DWI court that aims not only to crack down on repeat offenders but to get them the counseling and mental-health treatment they need.
"Law enforcement is doing what we need to do. It's our citizens who need to change their behavior," Reed said. "You know, take a cab. Designate a driver. Don't drink and drive."
There's one simple reason Bexar County is trying so hard to force a cork in the drinking and driving problem: It is the second deadliest county for drinking and driving accidents in the deadliest state.
2011 Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities in Bexar County (BAC .08+)
- Harris County - 167 (3.99 fatalities per 100,000 population)
- Bexar County - 79 (4.5)
- Dallas County - 68 (2.81)
- Tarrant County - 64 (3.46)
- El Paso County - 45 (5.48)
Although Houston's Harris County had more than double the number of fatalities that Bexar County had in 2011, it also had more than double the population. The NHTSA reported that Bexar County saw 4.5 fatalities per 100,000 population. That's compared to 3.99 fatalities per 100,000 population in Harris County.
Anyone who spends enough time in Bexar County will certainly become aware of the roadside memorials along country roads, busy highways and suburban drives. There are too many of them.
"I want that to end. I want the building of crosses to end," Simon Galan said.
At age 74, Galan has been making cabinets at his shop on the city's near east side for the better part of his life. More than two decades ago, he made his first white cross. He sanded it and routed it, making it as perfect as he possibly could.
It was for his son, Edward, who was struck and killed by a drunken driver. Edward was a single dad and had pulled over to help a complete stranger who had broken down on Highway 90 near Probandt. He was 29.
Each year since the accident, Galan has volunteered his services to make roadside crosses for dozens of victims throughout the county and all over the state. He would love to stop, but he doesn't believe he ever will.
"I do it because I know how the people asking for them feel, what they're going through," he said. "It's hard."
Finding a new normal
At a recent Mothers Against Drunk Driving event, Donna McCain described the hurt as a physical pain -- one she still feels when talking about her daughter's accident.
She was one of nearly 100 people gathered at Our Lady of the Lake University to release butterflies in remembrance of loved ones who died at the hands of a drunken driver. The somber service was titled "A Journey To A New Normal." It's a journey everyone there knew all too well.
About two years before Meagan's accident, Donna McCain was paralyzed when she was tossed from a horse at her ranch. She has used a wheelchair ever since. Her family was already coping with that "new normal."
Then on Aug. 21, 2009, the McCains lost their only child. Donna McCain said they also lost the sense of a family. Meagan was their world, their little cowgirl, and she was taken from them in the most senseless of ways.
"We're not the same in any way we were before. When you have a child, that child makes a couple into a family," she said. "And I don't feel like we have a family anymore. We were a family, but not having Meagan, I feel like that got taken away."
On the night of the crash, Meagan was on her way to Amarillo with three friends for a night of dancing. Their truck was struck head-on driving on I-40 just outside the city limits. Meagan was the only one of her friends who didn't survive.
The driver who hit them, a 36-year-old mother of two, also died in the crash. But Donna McCain rarely thinks of the woman. Instead, she thinks of the people the woman left behind.
"I think about her kids, and I'm so sad for her kids. They lost their mom, and they lost their mom in such a way that she made that choice to do what she did and take herself away from them," McCain said.
There are too many people, especially in Texas, coping with a new normal. There are too many people trying to make sense of so many senseless tragedies. Something needs to change, and it's pretty clear to the families left behind.
"We have to, as a community, say we're not going to do this anymore," McCain said. "We're not going to bury our children. We're not going to bury our parents. We're not going to bury our spouses. Anymore. And until we do that, not a whole lot is going to change."