A Saturday event in Houlton raised $7,500 for drunken driving prevention.
A smaller than usual crowd turned out Saturday morning for the sixth annual Walk Like M.A.D.D. event in Houlton. The walk is a fundraiser for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This year's walk raised $7,500. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The Houlton community raised $7,500 on Saturday to help eliminate drunken and drugged driving.

Alex Otte, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, came to the sixth annual Walk Like MADD event to share her story as the victim of an intoxicated driver.

The group’s mission is to halt impaired driving and to support victims of crimes involving impaired drivers. Its work with legislation, advocacy and education brought deaths from drunken driving down from 25,000 in 1980 to just more than 10,000 annually, experts said. But those numbers are spiking again, due partly to more people driving impaired during the pandemic, and MADD is ramping up its efforts.

“I try to get to several walks and it is wonderful to see people here supporting the cause,” Otte said Saturday. “We are hoping to get the message out to as many people as we can.”

A Saturday event in Houlton raised $7,500 for drunken driving prevention.
MADD’s National President Alex Otte, a native of Stanford, Kentucky, was the guest speaker at this year’s Walk Like M.A.D.D. event in Houlton Saturday morning. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Otte hails from Stanford, Kentucky, and at 26 is the youngest national president in MADD’s history. She said she was impressed with the Houlton community and its commitment to the MADD cause.

She was just a teenager enjoying a routine day at the lake on a personal watercraft when she was struck by an intoxicated person driving a boat at nearly 70 miles per hour.

“I gave my mother a thumbs-up to let her know I saw the boat coming,” she recalled. “When you get your boating license they teach you that when a boat is coming toward you, don’t try to anticipate where it will go, just stay where you are and wait for them to pass.”

The driver struck Otte, throwing her from the JetSki, and then ran over her body, causing massive injuries. As a result, she lost her right leg, suffered brain injuries, a broken neck and collarbone, broke the femur bone in both legs and had to have her jaw rebuilt.

She spent a week in a coma.

“The man who ran me over was more than three times over the legal limit two hours after the incident,” she said. “It was his fourth driving under the influence charge. He was fined $250 and sent home.”

Otte has since dedicated her life to fighting drunken and drugged driving, hoping her fate never befalls another person.

All money raised from the Maine walk will remain in the state and will be used for educational purposes.

Nicole Hutchinson, a 1988 alum of Houlton High School whose sister Darcie was killed at age 21 in 1996, organized the event. Hutchinson said she continues to be amazed by the support the event receives in her hometown year after year.

A Saturday event in Houlton raised $7,500 for drunken driving prevention.
Nicole Hutchinson, a 1988 alum of Houlton High School, once again returned to her hometown for the 6th annual Walk Like M.A.D.D. event. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

“It is always nice to come back home and I continue to be amazed by the support and generosity of the community,” Hutchinson said. “Our hope is that we will actually have staff here in Maine to continue the fight.”

While attendance was down somewhat, with a small group of about 24 walkers participating, the event still raised an impressive $7,500. Last year, participants around $11,500.

Though Hutchinson  lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she is Maine’s MADD coordinator and has returned to her hometown for each of the past six official MADD walks.

Drunken driving cases are rising nationally, which is a major concern for the organization, said Bob Garguilo, executive director of MADD New England.

“Unfortunately, most recently the number spiked at more than 11,000 [for 2020] for the first time in over a decade,” Garguilo said. “This spike came at a time when there were less vehicles on the road and a much lower [vehicle miles traveled].”

In the first quarter of 2022, there was an increase of 39.1 percent in the number of fatal crashes involving alcohol or drugs, compared with the same timeframe in 2021, he said, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

In New England, MADD launched a Law Enforcement Recognition Program. Police departments can nominate one or two officers who have led their departments in OUI enforcement or education. Nominees will receive a MADD award and pin.

The group has created free virtual educational programs for schools through the Ben Lovett Badge No. 201 Educational Fund. The fund was created in 2021 when officer Lovett, a MADD Award winner from the South Windsor Police Department, was killed by an impaired driver.

MADD has a 1-800 number available for support for victims, their families and friends, and wants to have advocates available to help face-to-face. But funding for those positions in Maine just isn’t there yet, Gargulio said.

“Law enforcement and MADD simply cannot do it alone. The crime of drunk/drugged driving is 100 percent preventable. We hope one day there will be no more victims.”