Victim takes a stand every day against DUI

When Athena Maita first hauled her handmade "No DUI" sign out next to North Carson Street in March 1998, some drivers may have wondered how long her personal campaign would last.

After more than two years of displaying her sign, waving at drivers and occasionally yelling at speeders, the 28-year-old woman has shown she has staying power.

Then again, so do the scars on her arm, neck and psyche that mark her as a survivor of a fatal alcohol-involved wreck at Lake Tahoe 13 years ago.

"I figure that with these scars to show I know what I'm talking about, maybe some people will listen and it will make a difference," Athena said recently.

"My big thing is awareness. I want people think about what can happen when they drive under the influence, which to me means influence of drugs as well as alcohol."

So Athena's out every day in front of the Maita family's apartment office at 1627 North Carson. She's become a fixture with passing drivers waving and beeping their horns at her in greeting or, occasionally, cussing her out.

"Sometimes somebody flips me off or screams at me. I figure that, if they've got a problem with what I'm doing, it's because they're feeling guilty about something themselves. So I don't pay much attention to them," she said.

"Lots of people stop to talk to me, though. They encourage me, tell me I'm doing the right thing.

"In any case, when I'm out there the traffic slows down because the drivers are looking at me."

Athena, then 15, was one of eight young people in a Blazer that went off the road at Tahoe, struck two trees and rolled several times. One 21-year-old man died from his injuries, while several others suffered severe injuries. One was in a coma 18 months, another was paralyzed from the waist down for six months. A girl was permanently disfigured when the flesh was torn from her face.

"A driver who was behind us and saw it said the Blazer was spinning over and bodies were flying out of it, including mine. My left arm was split open three places like a watermelon," Athena said in an account she now shares without flinching.

"The back of my neck was burned and two vertebrae were knocked out of place. I had several broken ribs and a punctured lung. My spleen was ruptured. My scalp was split, which my mother discovered combing my hair in the emergency room."

She suffered concussions and her brain swelled. After her initial treatment, she spent three years in rehabilitation. She suffered some permanent memory impairment and occasionally has seizures because her brain still swells from time to time.

The 19-year-old driver had a blood alcohol level of 0.11 percent and went to jail for DUI, vehicular manslaughter and other violations. He was out in four months, Athena said. But she decided not to agonize about that. Instead, she turned her focus to awareness.

"A few months after the accident, I still wasn't thinking too clearly, but this idea came to me for a T-shirt design," she said. Athena sketched a puzzle of alcohol plus car equals tombstone. She had some shirts made up and later some window stickers. Years later, she felt moved to take the next step and was soon standing in front of a Tahoe gas station, holding one of her T-shirts like a sign. By the time she stepped next to Carson Street, she'd moved up to her cardboard sign.

"Now, I really don't think prison is the answer for DUI drivers. For a first DUI, they should get a year of community service, a year of house arrest, lose their driver's license for a year and maybe have their car impounded for a year. For a second offense, everything should go up to five years," she said.

Meanwhile, Athena's message travels with her. She frequently talks with children and teenagers at Mills Park, trying to help them understand the horrible damage a drunk driver can wreak.

Athena talks of getting some sort of program going locally, where the survivors of DUI accidents and the relatives of people who are killed by DUI drivers can talk with the public. Now such presentations are usually only given as "victim impact panels" that are required viewing for DUI convicts.

"I'm not trying to be the Lone Ranger here. Probably nine out of 10 people have been affected by drunk drivers," Athena said as she picked up her sign for another afternoon along Carson Street.


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