Turning tragedy into change

HERO Campaign chairman and CEO Bill Elliott ’95M is working to end drunk driving tragedies.

Early in the morning of July 22, 2000, Ensign John Elliott, a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academic, was driving from Annapolis, Maryland, to his family’s home in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He never made it.

Instead, his parents, Bill and Muriel Elliott, were awakened by a knock on the door from police, who informed them their son had been killed in a head-on collision with a drunken driver. The other driver had been arrested earlier in the evening on DUI charges, then released to a friend, who allowed him to get behind the wheel again.

“My thought was if that friend had only driven his buddy home instead of putting him back behind the wheel, our son would be alive,” says Bill. “A designated driver would have been a hero to us.”

Looking to honor his son and make a difference, Bill formed the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers. The name’s meaning is twofold, reflecting both the heroic potential of designated drivers and John’s service as a peer advocate and counselor in the Naval Academy’s Human Education Resource Officer (HERO) program, where he was honored as his graduating class’ Outstanding HERO.

The goal of the HERO Campaign is simple but ambitious: register one million designated drivers and make having a designated driver as automatic as wearing a seatbelt. Thanks to Bill Elliott’s tireless work, numerous stakeholders and partners have joined the effort, putting the campaign well on its way to meeting that goal.

One of Elliott’s tactics has been to enlist bars and taverns to serve free soft drinks to designated drivers. This past summer, the campaign challenged 32 such establishments along the Jersey Shore to come up with nonalcoholic “mocktails.” Patrons voted on their favorite, from the Berry Sobertini to the No-hito. “The idea is that designated drivers don’t have to be the odd man out, and they can still have fun and enjoy a great drink,” says Elliott. “They’re not party poopers. We like to say they’re actually the life of the party.”

The campaign also partners with police, accompanying them at DUI checkpoints and handing out t-shirts to thank designated drivers. A partnership with Uber provides discounts to those who sign the HERO pledge to be a designated driver. Additional partnerships with sports teams provide free soft drinks to designated drivers.

“This is all designed to prevent families in the future from getting that knock on the door that we received, because you never get over it,” says Elliott. “You never leave the memory of your child behind. It’s impossible. But we think we have certainly made every effort to honor him in a way that is appropriate and reflects who he was as a person.”