Denise Dias uses her daughter’s death to help bring about change

From pain, hope…

Denise Dias

Alicea Dias’s life was snuffed out over 20 years ago when an allegedly drunken driver knocked her off of her motorbike, but the years have not lessened her mother’s pain even though the tragedy gave her a voice she never thought she had.

“I remember that day vividly; it was like yesterday, it really was like yesterday,” Denise Dias said when asked about that day in August 1996 when her daughter was killed.

Alicea was the first of Dias’s three children but she was quick to point out that it made no difference since no child replaces another.

“You know people come up to you and say at least you have two more. That is nonsense and hurtful because no child replaces another child, no life replaces another life and so still even though it was so long, today I could have been a grandmother…,” she said in a recent interview.

In a sit down with the Sunday Stabroek Dias became emotional when she recalled the day she saw her daughter lying on the public road at Ogle, a stone’s throw away from her home. But she knows the pain she feels is no less than what other mothers feel daily as their sons and daughters are killed on the roadways.

It was the awareness of this that saw her, and others form Mothers in Black not only for mothers to have an opportunity to talk to people who understood their pain but also to lobby for legislative changes that will result in safer roads.

This activism was part of why she was recently honoured by Queen Elizabeth II as the 17th Commonwealth Point of Light for her “exceptional voluntary work campaigning for better road safety regulations following the tragic death of her daughter, Alicea”. She is among inspirational volunteers from 53 countries across the Commonwealth who are being thanked for the difference they are making in their communities and beyond.

Dias, with other grieving mothers and concerned citizens, had organised a weekly one-hour vigil outside Parliament Buildings under Mothers in Black. For four years, the mothers and supporters stood silently dressed in black with pictures of their lost loved ones until the road safety legislation was passed. Amendments to the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act in 2002 saw enforcement of the use of helmets, seat belts, breathalysers and radar guns.

“It was a real big shock… I just couldn’t believe it,” Dias told this newspaper when asked about her reaction to the news, explaining that initially she thought she was being honoured for her activism in Help and Shelter.

She shared that even though she is honoured she never got a chance to walk her daughter down the aisle, and her daughter never got the opportunity to attend university which she was expected to start the week after her death.

“The biggest thing is that we do miss her as with lots of mothers who would have lost their children. When it is Christmas or any family celebrations…you just remember, and the pain continues but you wear a different mask. I have two other children and I do not wish to be miserable, she would not want me to miserable…,” she said.

It was a banging on her bedroom door that alerted her to the incident. She rushed out to the road and saw her daughter surrounded by many persons and having lived in England for 25 years she knew that was not what was needed, and she kept saying ‘she needs an ambulance’. She recalled a voice behind her saying, ‘Mistress, if you don’t move her now, she dead.’ She had no vehicle, but a young couple helped her to place Alicea in their vehicle and took her to the hospital. She died in her mother’s arms. Dias said she never got the couple’s names and even to this day she wishes to know their identities, she still longs to meet them.

She still remembers the outpouring of support the family received after the death and still vivid in her mind was the fact that all of her daughter’s friends were dressed in sunflower dresses they sewed for the funeral because her daughter loved sunflowers.

“No one wants to see their child go… but as I mentioned before, in her short time on this planet she did a lot, and I realise now that she saved a lot of lives through the foundation.”

The family never got justice because the driver of the car escaped to the US, but Dias said, “In a way I am glad,” because the country’s judicial system stinks. “It goes on and on forever. I know several cases where after years they are still going through the court,” she said adding that there are also payoffs.

And while she acknowledges that “payoffs are wrong” she understands why poor people accept the money. It is not because they want to accept it, because no amount of money can replace the lives of their loved ones, but rather they are in difficult circumstances and some of the victims were the breadwinners of their families.

While her daughter died too young, Dias said through the Alicea Foundation and Mothers in Black, the support of others who would have lost relatives and her family and friends they were able to accomplish a lot.

“Of course, it is still not enough, there are still too many deaths on our roads… and even though there are more traffic police at peak periods there are still people just flaunting the rules of the road,” she lamented.

Her daughter’s death also gave her a voice as Dias said while her siblings were the ones who would be “on the soap box and talk, I was the quiet one even though I was the eldest. But she made me shout out loud and through the Alicea Foundation I have been all over saying my story.”

Horrific crash

It was the horrific crash on the Linden Highway which saw the death of several children that really saw the birth of Mothers in Black. Dias emphasized ‘crash’, as she does not refer to the incidents as accidents, since most of them are caused by speeding and drunk driving so instead of an accident it is carelessness.

“I said I had to do something and because of the Alicea Foundation a lot of mothers when they lost their children they contacted me more or less for counselling and being able to grieve with somebody who knew exactly what they were going through. And so I decided let’s go out on the road and fortunately because of my business I was able to get photographs and everything and we stood silently and were dressed in black,” the businesswoman said.

They continued for four years until the legislative changes were made and along with the National Safety Commission and the Guyana Police Force the changes were implemented.

Dias pointed out that apart from the people who die, there are others who are maimed and are left to struggle for the rest of their lives.

While Mothers and Black, according to Dias, has been stagnant in recent years, it is now seeking permission from the government to build a road victims’ monument in the National Park. Permission has been granted by the National Parks Commission, but Dias said there is need for permission from the government to build the monument which she would fund.

“It is for those who would have lost loved ones, especially children, they can put their names somewhere and there will be somewhere where we could meet, because every year there is the annual observance for road traffic victims in November,” Dias said. She hopes to start the monument shortly so that it will be done in time for the upcoming observance.

The monument will be seen from the road and Dias said she hopes it will remind people to observe the rules of the road, the same way some persons indicate to her that the cross at the spot where her daughter died reminds them of road safety.

Dias said she now needs volunteers to go into all of the schools as she does not believe road safety remains part of the education curriculum as in the past. She recalled that in the past children were involved in road safety but no longer. She pointed out, “Three o’clock is now a nightmare. All you see is kids rushing out, they don’t care where they are going, what they are doing. They are just playing on the road and that is scary.”

Should the children become aware and educated about road safety laws, Dias said, they can also keep their parents in check such as asking them not to speak on their cellular phones while driving. She pointed out that in the US it has been proven that more crashes are caused by persons speaking on their phones than drinking and driving.

Another sore point for Dias, is the wearing of helmets as she does not understand how parents could equip themselves with helmets but have none for their children and they are not stopped by the police. There are also those on bikes with no helmets and there are those who “who even wear calabashes on their heads. How is that going to protect them?” Dias asked almost incredulously.

‘Statistics’

Meanwhile, Dias does not believe the statistics prepared by the police is accurate. She said she does not agree with the police compiling the statistics but instead there should be another organization collecting the data.

“Because in fairness, the traffic department would not want to show that they had so many more crashes than last year, they wouldn’t want to show that because it would show that they are not doing their jobs,” Dias said.

She also pointed out that those persons who died days after at the hospitals, most of the times these deaths are not filtered back to the police.

Dias also called for the government to invest in having traffic police trained to better manage traffic crashes and better be able to take down information. She suggested that they be sent overseas to get the requisite training not only for the crashes but also for what happens after, such as when the matter goes to court. “Because any little loophole a good lawyer will get the person off,” she pointed out.