Sheila Lockwood says she never intended to be an activist.
But the suburban Chicago mother was thrust into that role when her son Austin was killed in a drunk driving accident in Wisconsin two years ago.
“Your life is turned upside down after a crash like this,” she said. “And the person who murdered your loved one just goes on without any consequences.”
She speaks of the driver Austin was riding with on that Wisconsin road, 23-year-old Eric LaBahn. On the night of June 8, 2018, police said LaBahn was legally drunk when he hit a tree near Three Lakes. LaBahn survived, but Austin was killed.
Investigators say LaBahn refused a breathalyzer test at the scene and that when he was finally tested later that evening at a hospital, he registered at .117. He was charged with homicide in connection with the crash.
But that didn’t lead to immediate revocation of LaBahn’s license, because authorities in Illinois, where he was licensed, wern't told about the accident. And the story grew even more bizarre a few months later, when his family moved to Wisconsin and authorities there issued him a new license -- even though he had been involved in a fatal accident.
“Wisconsin does not suspend licenses after a fatality like this,” Lockwood says she discovered, noting that LaBahn got his license while his case was pending. “There’s no consequences until the trial---there’s no repercussions for taking a life---nothing.”
LaBahn was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. But Lockwood set out to change the law.
And she found out that’s easier said than done.
“I’m pushing that every state should be a part of a database to share information in order to get federal highway funding,” she said. “To get federal funding for highways and roads, you’d have to be a part of this---that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Initially she says she got good response from representatives of Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, other elected officials and some highway administrators. But her effort stalled as she learned a larger initiative called S2S, or State-To-State, was moving forward.
That program does call for the sharing of information in a new database. Plus, it would give driver’s license authorities new power to discover if a driver seeking a license already holds one in another state. (Believe it or not, in 2020 that’s still a problem.)
But the system would still largely report violations only after drivers are convicted.
“Unfortunately, when I was so hopeful, I find out that it’s not mandatory,” she says. “I want the whole thing fixed, and the whole thing is broken.”
Ian Grossman, vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, confirms that S2S is not mandatory, although he says 25 states have already signed on, and AAMVA believes the rest will do so as well, because the upcoming implementation of Real ID for driver’s licenses mandates that states make certain a driver holds only one license in one state.
“The driver’s license is a state document, and it’s a state’s authority to issue it,” Grossman said, noting that each jurisdiction does have different rules about the way violations are handled in their state.
“I think most motor vehicle administrators are for strong laws that enhance road safety, while at the same time protecting the personal privacy and due process of their citizens,” he said.
S2S will be overseen by a group of states, Grossman said, noting that AAMVA built the system and operates it on behalf of the member states.
“[The states] will determine the standards and requirements that participating states must follow to use the service,” Grossman said. “But the decision to participate in the service is a decision each state must make and for some requires state legislative authority.”
Grossman conceded that most states share only conviction information. And that’s something Lockwood believes must be changed.
“It’s broken everywhere,” she said. “And the federal government needs to step in and say, this has got to stop.”
All of this, from a mother who suffered the heartbreak of losing her son, and would be within her rights to lock the doors and windows and never want to talk about the accident again. Instead, she continues to try and channel that grief to make a change.
“Austin didn’t leave us for no reason,” she said. "I don’t want to see this happen to anybody else. Because what we’ve had to go through is so unbelievable. It never stops.”