Like thousands of other Kentuckians, we remember well May 14, 1988, when a drunken driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 71 near Carrollton struck a church bus returning home to Radcliff after day at King’s Island, causing one of he most deadly vehicle accidents in this nation’s history. The horrific crash killed 27, many of them teenagers, and injured 34 others.
But as survivors of the crash and family members of those who died prepare for a public memorial service at North Hardin High School gymnasium at Radcliff Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the accident, it is important to remember that the tragedy also helped bring about positive changes in laws not only in Kentucky but throughout the United States. Because of laws enacted in the aftermath of that accident, there are far fewer drunken drivers on our highways today and school buses are much safer. In fact, we are all safer because of the changes that accident inspired.
Back in 1988, getting arrested for driving while intoxicated was not considered a particularly serious offense, especially for the first offense. But because that accident was caused by Larry Mahoney, who was so intoxicated that he did not realize he was going the wrong way on a major interstate highway, legislators in Frankfort and in other states finally got serious about doing something to discourage drunken driving. A drunken driving conviction today virtually assures time in jail, a steep fine and at least the temporary loss of one’s drivers license. A DUI conviction also means a driver will see his or her insurance rates soar, that is if that person can get insurance at all.
Because of the number who died in that accident, people realized the seriousness of driving while intoxicated and today a DUI arrest carries a social stigma associated with it that did not exist in 1988. Almost overnight, those planning a night out involving the consumption of alcohol began the evening by appointing a “designated driver” who would remain sober while the others drank.
Yes, drunken driving still is a serious problem on the state’s highways and too many people still die in accidents caused by intoxicated drivers, but the number of DUI arrests has dropped dramatically since 1988, and while 25 years ago, alcohol was the cause of nearly 50 percent of all highway fatalities, that number has been reduced by half largely because of the tough DUI laws enacted after that bus crash.
But the positive changes brought about by the bus accident did not stop with just enacting much tougher DUI laws. While Mahoney, who rightly served 9 1/2 years of a 15-year prison sentence for causing the crash, most, if not all, of the deaths were caused by the inability of passengers to quickly get out of the bus after the crash. The trapped passengers died when the bus caught fire minutes after the accident.
As a direct result of that accident, buses today have more ways to escape the vehicle, and because the fuel tank on the bus caused the fire, fuel tanks on today’s buses a much better protected today than in 1988.
While the church bus involved in the accident was a former school bus sold to a church, it now is virtually impossible for churches and others to buy used school buses, something that was common prior to 1988. Because of the soaring cost of insurance and the legal requirements for bus drivers, large church buses that used to take many people — especially children — to and from church have disappeared, although van ministries still exist. While some members lament no longer being able to bus so many children to church, no one disputes the need for safer buses.
All of us wish that accident on May 14, 1988 had never occurred, but the fact that it helped bring some much needed changes means that as so often happens good things came from that terrible event. That probably would not have happened if the accident had only caused a few, relatively minor injuries, which likely would have been the case had the bus not caught fire.