Arlena Baker has a stark message for those taking a drink of alcohol or consuming drugs before driving any time of the year, much less during the holidays when such activity can be even more prevalent.
“Don’t do it. Just don’t,” says Baker, 45, owner, director and the instructor at 1st Choice DUI School at 5870 Veterans Parkway in Columbus. “It’s not worth it. It’s really not ... It can ruin your life and, obviously, the lives of anyone you hurt or kill doing it.”
A Columbus native, Baker said she has never faced a driving under the influence charge. But she does know others who have, particularly some of those she served with in the U.S. Army over her eight years in the military branch. And it left their careers in shambles.
Statistics from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety show the extent of the problem. In 2015 alone, there were 366 fatalities related to those driving while impaired across the state. Alcohol-related deaths were most prevalent in major metro areas that included Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah, as well as in college towns such as Athens and Valdosta.
More of the accidents and deaths from impaired driving took place between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., the statistics show, which is when most restaurants, bars and nightclubs close their doors. While drinking and driving is most often associated with automobiles and trucks, the stats show that 25 percent of motorcycle riders killed in accidents had a blood alcohol content level above the legal limit.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Baker recently about her DUI school and her job as an instructor. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why did you decide to get into this vocation, which at its core is helping to reduce the number of people getting back on the road after becoming impaired?
A. I’ve always had a passion for helping people. I just love to help people. Being in the military, I saw many people who had gotten DUIs and it ruins their lives. I’ve never had a DUI, but I know some people who have and it destroyed their lives ... And not just alcohol, it’s drugs also. They have to come to this school if they have been convicted of any drug charges.
Q. So you felt a school was the best avenue for you?
A. Most people wouldn’t think of a DUI school and opening one up. I was sitting there one day and I was like, there is something else that I want to do. I already volunteer and I help different nonprofit organizations, but this was something I wanted to do ... There’s so many people drinking and doing drugs out here every day. It’s very sad.
People don’t realize how bad it is. I didn’t know had bad until I actually started doing my research (and saw the numbers). I was like, hmm, I think I want to become a DUI instructor. It took me a week to get in touch with the right people and they told me everything I had to do.
Q. You take a course to become certified?
A. Yes. It was a three-day course in Duluth, Ga., and very intense. I was very nervous. I didn’t know the things they taught us exist, so I learned a lot at the school. We had to take three tests, and everybody in my class passed.
Q. People coming to you for the class have been convicted of a DUI?
A. For the DUI and drug course, they have to be court ordered. You have to take 20 hours, everybody. What happens is they come in and we give them an assessment. It’s 130 questions that ask them about themselves so that we can get a better feel for them as a person, their lifestyle and what they’re going through, or like where they’re at in their mind at the moment. That helps us to help them. That’s the very first step.
Q. What’s the next step?
A. After they take the assessment, we evaluate that and see what it looks like and what they scored on it. They then can pay for an intervention course. The assessment is $100 and the course is $260. That’s (the amount charged is mandated by) Georgia state law. So it’s basically $360. They have to have a workbook that’s included.
Q. What do you go over in the course?
A. We’re basically trying to get into their minds of why they were drinking and driving. What brought them to this point? We’re letting them know it’s very high risk ... that you decided to drink and drive. We’re trying to get them to understand the danger of drinking and driving. It can kill. It can change your life.
Q. But you don’t preach to them?
A. We don’t embarrass you. A lot of them are already embarrassed and we don’t do that at all. We don’t even ask you questions. We’re actually going to have a lot of students who can’t even read. What we do is sit there and read to you, because you’re going to get someone who’s not going to tell you they can’t read. So it’s mandatory for us to read out of the book so they can follow along.
Q. Are there videos?
A. There are videos that go along with the workbooks.
Q. Are they graphic in terms of wreckage and destruction?
A. They are. We have a movie that they’ll be watching and it shows what happens when you drink and drive. The movie is about children that were on a field trip and a drunk driver hit them. So it’s a very emotional movie and that this is what can happen if you do this.
Q. This is the season for even more drinking and driving for some people?
A. It is. The holidays are approaching and this is when people will get a DUI. It’s going to be quite a few of them … then you also have to think about the fact that they have Monday Night Football and other sports on TV routinely. It’s all during the year that something is going on, so there are chances of a drunk driver getting on the roads.
Q. That means this is truly a year-round business?
A. Right. You’re going to get more DUIs during the holidays just because people are off and they’re going to be socializing more and drinking. But you’re going to get DUIs all through the year because they’re going to hang out at sports bars and drink while they’re watching the games and all of that stuff, then try to drive home. And often times, their home may not be far away, maybe just around the corner.
Q. And in the course you go over the losses they can face if they drink and drive again?
A. Yes. But you’re not just talking about your life, you’re taking away from your family’s life. You family life changes. Not just yours. And not just the person you actually hurt. You’re taking away from everybody when you go out there and drink and drive. It’s not worth it. It’s really not.
Q. What kind of instructor mentality do you bring to this?
A. Because I love people, I am an emotional person. But I have to kind of set that aside. I can’t be emotional in front of my students. I’m down to earth and people gravitate towards me. You can talk to me, I’m a listener and very approachable. All through my life I’ve been told that I’m the type of person that people can come talk to about anything, and I won’t judge them at all.
Q. This is a judgment-free zone, in essence?
A. Yes. You can’t judge them. That’s one thing you don’t want to do. You don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable when they come in here. You want to be cautious, of course, because you’re going to get some people who don’t want to be here at all. They’re not going to want to do anything. It may be that I give them their workbook and they just might throw it on the floor. We were taught how to deal with that.
Q. To deal with different personalities?
A. That’s right.
Q. Could someone in the class possibly get out of sorts and cause a commotion?
A. We should hope not, but anything can happen. They’re not allowed to come in here drunk. If we even smell alcohol, we have to make them leave. The rules and regulations from the state are very, very strict. They can’t be late. We start at 9 o’clock and they have to be here then. It can’t be 9:01 because the doors will be locked.
Q. How long are sessions?
A. I do it on the weekends and at night. Eight hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday, and on Monday night from 6 to 10 p.m., because people work on Mondays. And a lot of people are not going to want to tell their supervisor during the day on a weekday that, hey, I got a DUI and have to go to class. So I try to make it convenient for people.
Q. So your bottom-line goal is to educate people and keep them from driving impaired ever again?
A. Right. My bottom line goal is when a student leaves my school, they’re going to walk away knowing that it was a learning experience and they will be pleased with having taken the class. And not because it was mandatory, but because they are now knowledgeable about the risks of driving while intoxicated and can advise others not to make the same mistake that they did. That’s my goal.
Hometown: Born in Long Island, N.Y., but raised in Columbus
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1990 graduate of Baker High School in Columbus; earned sociology degree from Columbus State University in 2014; has a Georgia DUI/Drug Risk Reduction Institute certification
Previous jobs: U.S. Army for eight years; Columbus Parks and Recreation; Civil service at Fort Benning; Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning
Family: Four children — Shacoria, Cassandra, Dominique and Tyrone
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with friends, reading and traveling