By Donald Wittkowski
As the 17th anniversary of their son’s death approaches, Bill and Muriel Elliott are once again painfully reminded of the tragedies caused by drunken drivers.
On July 22, they plan to gather at a roadside memorial that marks the spot in Upper Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, where John Elliott was killed by a drunken driver in 2000.
Bill Elliott noted that he and his wife, as they always do, will think about how their son could have been saved if the drunken driver, who was also killed in the crash, had not gotten behind the wheel or had used a designated driver.
The Elliotts, though, have found some comfort in a new initiative involving the ride-hailing service Uber to prevent drunken driving at the Jersey Shore this summer.
“This is about saving lives,” Bill Elliott, chairman of the HERO Campaign, said during a press conference Monday in Sea Isle City to announce the program.
Uber will give up to $10 off for a ride anywhere in New Jersey to the first 2,000 people who take the HERO Campaign pledge to be a designated driver. People may sign up for the pledge by going online at HEROCampaign.org/Uber or by texting HEROUBER to 51555.
Named in honor of their son, the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers was founded by the Elliotts in October 2000 to prevent drunken driving. More than 35,000 people have signed the HERO Campaign pledge cards so far.
Uber has partnered with the HERO Campaign to encourage more people to take the HERO pledge, including its own drivers. Already, more than 1,500 Uber drivers in New Jersey have done it, including 500 in the past week, company spokesman Craig Ewer said.
“For these drivers, taking the pledge means making every effort to be on the road when they’re needed most to prevent drunk driving – on nights and weekends. In fact, our data shows that Uber trip requests tend to spike when bars are closing late at night,” Ewer said in remarks at Monday’s press conference.
Lance Zeaman, marketing manager for a group that represents more than 300 drivers who work for Uber and fellow ride-hailing company Lyft, said his organization fully supports the new initiative and has already begun to promote it.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio pointed out that the Uber drivers will complement the city’s efforts to keep the roads safe through its jitney bus service.
“We want people to have a good time. But we don’t want them to get behind the wheel (when intoxicated),” Desiderio said.
In addition to being the mayor, Desiderio is the owner of the Kix McNutley’s bar and entertainment complex in Sea Isle. He said his top concern as a bar owner is to “get people home safely.”
“We’re all in this together,” he said.
During the press conference, Desiderio presented the Elliotts with a ceremonial key to the city in recognition of their efforts to prevent drunken driving.
Currently, the HERO Campaign is in seven states, including New Jersey, and has also established partnerships with professional sports teams to promote designated driving. Bars, taverns and restaurants that participate in the HERO Campaign provide free soft drinks to designated drivers.
“We’re not anti-drinking. We just want to make sure that a night of fun doesn’t turn into a night of tragedy,” Bill Elliott said.
For the Elliotts, their night of tragedy came on July 22, 2000. Their 22-year-old son, a Navy ensign, was killed in a head-on crash while he was en route to his parents’ home in Egg Harbor Township to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He died only two months after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
The HERO acronym in the HERO Campaign stands for Human Education Resources Officer. This type of HERO is selected by their peers at the Naval Academy to serve as a mentor and counselor. John Elliott was named the top HERO of his graduating class.
The man who killed John Elliott had been arrested and charged with drunken driving just two hours before the crash, but was released to the custody of a friend, who let him get behind the wheel again.
John’s Law, a state bill named in Elliott’s honor, followed in 2001, allowing New Jersey police to seize the vehicles of suspected drunken drivers for up to 12 hours after they are arrested.
Bill Elliott said police have told him that about 7,500 vehicles per year are impounded as a result of John’s Law, keeping them out of the hands of alleged drunken drivers while they are still inebriated.
New Jersey lawmakers are expected soon to give final approval to another piece of state legislation in John Elliott’s honor. It would rename the section of Route 40 in Salem County, where he was killed, in his memory.
Bill Elliott said the legislation has already been passed by the Senate and may receive Assembly approval this week. Under that timetable, the Elliotts are hopeful that a dedication ceremony renaming the section of Route 40 in their son’s honor can happen when they visit his roadside memorial on July 22 to mark the 17th anniversary of his death.
“That would be the plan if we can get this done,” Bill Elliott said of the legislation’s pending approval.