Tess Rowland is a multimedia journalist and the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) National President. She shared her story with TODAY contributor Genevieve Shaw Brown.
I was supposed to be reporting on sea turtles that day.
It was May 4, 2021, a Tuesday. I was on my way to my job as a morning reporter at WMBB in Panama City, Florida. As was my usual routine, I woke up at 2:45 a.m., got camera-ready and headed to the office on the same route I took every day. Just like any other day.
Except, it wasn’t.
The only thing I remember are the headlights coming straight toward me and having no time to react. When I woke up in the hospital later, that day I’d already undergone four surgeries. The first responders who came to the scene where I was struck by an alleged drunk driver later told me they couldn’t believe I was alive.
The engine came within an inch of my body. I was 22 years old and until that moment when I saw the headlights, I was living my dream life.
The person who was driving the car that struck me spent one night in jail and bonded out. The court case is still pending. Meanwhile, I spent 12 days in the hospital undergoing a total of seven surgeries, requiring four plates and 22 screws. My injuries entailed complex fractures to my knee and shoulder and doctors considered amputating the lower portion of my right leg but were fortunately able to save it. I'll have more surgeries in the years to come.
But as someone once told me, “You can get bitter or you can get better.” I chose better. During my physical recovery, I was supported by a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) victim advocate and eventually became involved in the local chapter.
I’m a journalist and I tell stories. After fundraising and raising awareness for MADD, I’ve taken on a role with the organization that will allow me to share my story with so many more people. At 24 years old, I’m the new MADD National President — among the youngest people to ever have the role.
A person is killed by a drunk driver every 45 minutes in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Think about that number, and then think about how it doesn’t even include people like me: people who were injured, even severely.
I am using my voice for the voiceless: those people who are killed every 45 minutes. Because the fact is, they’re dead. They can’t tell their stories. but I can tell mine and hopefully, in the process, save lives.
You might be thinking, “I would never drink and drive.” Me neither. Even if you have a designated driver, or always take an Uber after drinking like I did, there’s no way to protect yourself from other people on the road who aren’t as responsible.
There’s a reason why victims of drunk driving crashes very intentionally use the word “crash” instead of “accident.” There’s nothing accidental about choosing to drive while impaired. It is a crime and it is a choice. Killing or injuring someone in a crash is 100% preventable.
As MADD National President, I like to say, “This isn’t your mother’s MADD.” When I say that, I mean that it’s actually my generation that is at the forefront of preventing impaired driving. The key lies with technology. The same way we have airbags and rearview cameras, I think that we need to have a way to test sobriety prior to driving. Fortunately, it's happening: A new law will require car manufacturers to install anti-drunk-driving technology in new cars by 2026.
I’m blessed to be in the position I am in today, but I still have occasional nightmares about the headlights coming toward me, and more physical challenges to face in the future. My mental, emotional and physical scars aren’t going anywhere. The best I can do with my second chance is keep someone else from the same fate — or even death.