By Terry Wright/Hunterdon County Democrat
FLEMINGTON, NJ – “We got a knock on the door at 4 a.m. Two police officers said, ‘Your son didn’t make it.’ ”
That’s how William Elliott of Atlantic County learned that his son John, who had graduated from the Naval Academy just two months before, was dead. A drunken driver had killed him in a head-on collision on Route 40 in Pilesgrove, Salem County.
He was enroute home to help his mother, Muriel, celebrate her birthday at their home in Egg Harbor Township.
Shortly after that happened 12 years ago, William Elliott started an organized effort to keep drunks from getting behind the wheel, the HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers. He joined speakers from Hunterdon and Somerset counties who gathered on the front steps of the old courthouse in Flemington today to kick off an effort to stop drunk driving accidents, especially during the upcoming holiday season.
The audience included municipal and State Police officers, sheriff’s officers and representatives of various groups and government.
The campaign aim, Elliott said, is to get having a designated driver “to be an automatic activity … as automatic as wearing a seatbelt.”
He summed it up as, “If you are drinking, make sure you have a safe driver.”
The movement he started has grown to five other states, with Kentucky the latest. Besides law enforcement, the campaign has expanded to taverns and restaurants, colleges, NASCAR and professional sports teams. The New England Patriots football team, he reported, signs up 23,000 designated drivers every season.
While at the Academy, John Elliott distinguished himself as a Human Education Resource Officer (HERO), elected by his peers to counsel and mentor other members of their company. That’s the genesis of naming the HERO Campaign, an appeal to the hero in each person.
Among the other speakers today were Lt. Col. Louis Klock of the State Police.
“When we find out that a motor vehicle accident is linked to a drunk driver, our pain and suffering and concern for the family is taken to levels that exponentially grow within seconds,” he said. “It’s one of those tasks that we never forget.”
He recalled that some 20 years ago, when he was a road trooper, he was dispatched to investigate an accident “in which a drunk driver killed an 8-year-old girl.” After that “his life certainly wasn’t the same, the family’s life wasn’t the same and it’s something that frankly changed the course of my patrol practices right to this moment,” Klock said.
“Removing drunk drivers from the roadway became a pivotal part of my patrol practices,” he noted.
The HERO Campaign is “about making proper choices and doing the right thing,” he said, adding that it’s making being a designated driver “something that’s cool and something that’s noble.”
Designed drivers are in a leadership capacity, there to “take on a task and save lives and make sure people don’t get behind the wheel who are drunk,” he said.
Among the others speaking were Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns III, Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano, Lesley Gabel of Hunterdon Prevention Resources and the Hunterdon/Somerset Safe Communities Coalition, and President Steven Lember of the Hunterdon County Bar Association. The Rev. David Errickson, whose various roles include serving as the Hunterdon jail chaplain, lead the assemblage in prayer, giving the invocation and benediction.