WKYT Investigates | Nationwide effort to prevent drunk driving tied to Ky. tragedy

Dozens have died in Lexington alone over the past few years in alcohol-related crashes.
Dozens have died in Lexington alone over the past few years in alcohol-related crashes.
Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 10:42 AM EST
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NORTHVILLE, Mich. (WKYT) - School portraits and family photos on canvases. Candles. Stones etched with the words “angel,” “peace” and “joy.” A bale of sea turtles made of glass and ceramic. And, perhaps most of all, a handful of words written in chalk on a blackboard.

Messages and mementos are all Rana Abbas Taylor still has to hold onto of her sister, brother-in-law, nephew and nieces.

“The memories are everything, and not enough at the same time,” Abbas Taylor says. “Because they were so real.”

Now their smiles are only snapshots, fleeting moments - of an entire family - forever frozen in time, but never to be forgotten: Dr. Rima Abbas, 38; her husband, Issam, 42, a lawyer and real estate agent; and their children: Ali, 14, Isabelle, 13, and Giselle, 7.

“It’s all we have,” Tom Taylor, Rana’s husband, says of their memories. “So we protect and cherish every single one of them.”

They remember Rima, a doctor, as someone who was all about helping people; Issam as someone to whom fairness and justice were the utmost; the intelligent Ali (“AJ”) as a wise old soul; Isabelle (“Izzy”) as quiet and compassionate, with a heart of gold; and Giselle, nicknamed “Jazz, because she was like the music in our lives,” as pure sunshine.

Abbas Taylor turns to the chalkboard. “That’s Rima’s quote,” she says.

“Always remember how strong your love is,” she recites, not reading but remembering, picking up where the chalk trails off. “Especially when things get difficult.”

It’s advice that Rima gave in a toast at Rana and Tom’s wedding reception - advice that was appropriate at the time, but likely even more appropriate now.

Because things have gotten difficult.

More difficult than Abbas Taylor says she ever could have dreamed.

“Sometimes you say, like, in your wildest nightmares what would be the worst thing that could happen?” she asks. “I don’t even think our mind was capable of imagining anything like that.”

A memorial candle bears a photo of the Abbas family: Issam, 42; Rima, 38; Ali, 14; Isabelle,...
A memorial candle bears a photo of the Abbas family: Issam, 42; Rima, 38; Ali, 14; Isabelle, 13; Giselle, 7.(WKYT)

Around the holidays, walking in downtown Northville, Michigan is like stepping into a snow globe. Lights are strung, decorations fill windows, shoppers flit between restaurants and shops that line the downtown streets.

The Abbas family had lived in the Detroit suburb, population 6,119, for several years. They were active in the community - in political groups, school groups and extracurricular activities. They remain well-known here.

And it was here they were driving back to on January 6, 2019, passing through Kentucky on their way home from vacation, when at 2:17 a.m. a drunk driver turned onto the wrong ramp at Exit 113 in Lexington and drove nearly seven miles south - in the northbound lanes - before crashing into the Abbas family’s SUV.

All five members of the family, plus the other driver, died in the crash.

“When you talk about family trees, for us, it felt...like we lost the entire tree,” Rana Abbas Taylor told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “We didn’t just lose a branch.”

[RELATED COVERAGE | WKYT Investigates: After spate of deadly wrong-way crashes, what can be done to prevent more deaths?]

As tragic as it was, that was just the start of a deadly stretch on central Kentucky highways.

A WKYT Investigates analysis of state crash data shows that 40 people have died in Lexington alone the past three years in crashes in which the driver was suspected of drinking. Nearly half (19) of those deaths came in head-on crashes.

Those included three high-profile wrong-way crashes in particular:

“What that shows me and others,” said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, “is that people are still making this choice because they don’t realize the consequences that it’ll have not only for themselves but often for other people.”

A graph from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows the ways drinking can...
A graph from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows the ways drinking can impair driving.(NHTSA)

Alex Otte hoped she would be the last victim.

Otte was just 13 when she suffered a severe brain injury and broken neck - and lost her right leg - after being hit by a drunken boater while riding a jet ski.

She was not the last victim.

That was in 2010, more than a decade ago. Since then, Otte has worked as an anti-drunk driving activist, volunteering with MADD and often sharing her story. In 2021 she was named the organization’s national president.

Otte, who lives in Lexington, remembers far too well the crash that killed the Abbas family. She knows it is too late to save them, but is confident a recent landmark step will save others because of them.

For years, MADD has been looking at technology to help prevent intoxicated drivers from taking the wheel.

“The drunk or otherwise impaired driver will get in their car, and it either won’t start, won’t move or will pull itself over once it detects impairment,” Otte explained, describing how the technology generally works. “The sober driver will never even know it’s there. And so many of these technology options are already in new cars, they’re just not being used for this purpose.”

Advocates have been fighting for that technology in the halls of Congress. Now the infrastructure bill signed into law in November will soon mandate it for new cars.

While different versions of the technology exist, experts emphasize that they are passive systems, not like breathalyzers or ignition interlocks. A MADD report documented 241 advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technologies in existence, many of which advocates say could be deployed today.

The law directs federal regulators to set a final standard for anti-drunk driving technology that could include driver performance monitoring, driver monitoring and alcohol-detection systems. Once that standard is set, companies will have two to three years to implement it, meaning cars with the new technology could roll off of assembly lines as soon as 2026-2027.

It cannot come soon enough, advocates say.

Thousands die each year from alcohol-related crashes. In fact, one, on average, dies every 52 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

Estimates claim that alcohol detection systems in cars could prevent more than a quarter of U.S. crash deaths and save more than 9,000 lives a year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

“No matter what we do, no matter who I kick and scream at, there’s always going to be people who make this choice, that just don’t want to listen,” Otte said. “So our role is to ensure through this technology that the car won’t allow them to make this choice.”

The initial House bill that called for requiring that technology - legislation filed by a congresswoman from Michigan, Rep. Debbie Dingell - was named for the Abbas family.

At a small park on a corner lot just down the street in the Northville neighborhood Rana Abbas Taylor shared with her sister’s family, friends have built a memorial bench.

“We always kind of just stop by here on our walk back,” Abbas Taylor explained on a recent warmer-than-average Michigan winter day.

As she and her husband, Tom, approached the park, their dog, Max, began to pull toward the bench, recognizing the routine. They come here daily to sit, to talk or sometimes just to be in the presence of their lost loved ones.

“I think that’s part of the healing that we’ve gone through,” Abbas Taylor said. “These are the spaces we still feel them.”

They also come here to update them on their work with MADD in their memory - a responsibility the couple felt strongly in the months after their family members’ deaths.

“We understand now what that pain feels like,” Tom Taylor said. “We could not in good conscience have another family go through what we went through without trying to do something to prevent that from happening in the first place.”

They have gone to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. They have testified before Senate committees. And even now that the law has passed - which they describe as a weight being lifted off their shoulders - they know there is still work ahead of them, working with NHTSA on the rule-making process and educating people on what the technology is and is not.

“As soon as that technology gets put in cars, lives are being saved,” Abbas Taylor said.

They have also kept the Abbas family’s legacy alive in other ways - through their Red Wagon Fund, for example, which provides grants to charities and causes that mattered most to them (named for the family’s tradition of delivering gifts throughout their neighborhood each winter while pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon), and through memorial scholarships established at high schools in Northville and nearby Dearborn.

Rana Abbas Taylor described the hopelessness and utter despair she felt in the immediate aftermath of the crash - wondering, she said, what was even the point?

Now they feel they have found it, in continuing the lives of service of their lost loved ones, in pushing for a safer world than the one they left behind.

“I hope that 10 years from now, when you have loved ones on the road and you say, ‘Drive safe,’ that’s all you’re having to worry about, is them paying attention,” she said. “Because Rima and Issam were the safest drivers.

“That expression doesn’t mean anything to us anymore, because you realize, no matter how safe you are you can’t control what’s outside of your control,” she said. “So I hope that 10 years from now, that expression means something again to us.”

After the tragedy that touched this town, sitting in the shadow of the Motor City, they are now looking to the auto industry to prevent the next one.

"Always remember how strong your love is...especially when things get difficult."  Advice from...
"Always remember how strong your love is...especially when things get difficult." Advice from a toast the late Rima Abbas had given to her newlywed sister has proven to be prescient.(WKYT)

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