It is every parent's worst nightmare. A Highway Patrol officer appears at the door with horrible news: "Your son has been killed in an automobile accident."
It happened to Sheldon Suroff July 27, 1993.
His son, Jason, a 21-year-old senior at Indiana University, was driving to a concert with three friends when he swerved to miss a truck headed the wrong way on Interstate 70 in Missouri. His car rolled over. Jason died instantly. His friends suffered only cuts and bruises.
When the truck was found hours later, the 91-year-old driver with senile dementia had no memory of the accident. He died 15 months later in a state-run hospital, never knowing why he had been committed.
Days after burying his son, Suroff, a Merrill Lynch vice president in Clayton, Mo., set out to ensure that "no one would have to go through what we did."
Thanks to his efforts and his nonprofit organization, Concerned Americans for Responsible Driving (CARD), Missouri enacted the Impaired Driver Law. It encourages family members, law enforcement and health officials to report anyone they suspect of having seriously flawed driving skills.
Upon receiving a report, a three-member panel decides whether to order mental and/or physical tests for the driver, and whether to suspend or revoke the driver's license. The law provides immunity and confidentiality for those reporting.
Suroff is quick to point out that "age is not a factor" in the law's wording or enforcement. "We just want to get unsafe drivers off the road," he says.
As a result, the law received support from the American Association of Retired Persons, the Alzheimer's Association of Missouri, the Missouri Medical Association, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Auto Club of Missouri/Kansas.
"This is not Big Brother. It is the fairest, strongest and cleanest driving bill ever passed," Suroff says.
In fact, Missouri's law is a model other states are copying. Suroff and his CARD organization have become unofficial advisers for legislators seeking safer driving laws in their states.
In the Suroff case, the truck driver's daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to stop driving, but he refused to give up the keys. Had the law been on the books at the time, she could have confidentially reported her dad and gotten him off the road.
It took four years to get the bill on the governor's desk. Sheldon and his wife, Karen, found out that it passed both Missouri legislative bodies in May 1998, while attending the college graduation of their only other child, Jill, in Binghamton, N.Y.
"It was special that the family was together at that time," Suroff says. "Jill and her brother were very close.
"The bill's passage was certainly a bittersweet moment for me," Suroff says. "Jason was the type of son anyone would love to have. He was a loving, caring kid with a great sense of humor. I think he'd be proud of what we did."