His son Kit died on a California highway, the victim of a drunk driver. So with the wreckage in tow, BC businessman Robert Malkin began a dedicated fight that's already changed lax laws on both sides of the border
JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT on November 3, 1963, Ronald Gene Davis, a 25-year-old jobless gravedigger, was driving home after spending several hours drinking near Palo Alto, just outside San Francisco. Davis careened through a red light at a busy intersection at more than 50 mph. His car struck a Hillman convertible broadside. The driver of the Plillman, 22-year-old Christopher (Kit) Malkin, died instantly of a broken neck. His friend, 25-year-old John Barth, a fellow student, died too.
Davis fled the scene of the crash but was arrested two hours later. He refused to take a voluntary alcohol test (although a urine test, nonadmissible as evidence, showed he had .23 percent alcohol in his blood —the equivalent of about a dozen ounces of liquor). He was released on bail. He later entered a no-contest plea to two charges of manslaughter and was sentenced to a year in the county jail. He was free in eight months and two days, on good behavior; free, too, to drive again.
Until his death, Kit Malkin was a graduate student, teaching while working toward his doctorate in marine biology at Stanford University. He was also a linguist who spoke seven languages, a licensed pilot, a musician, a mathematician, and the brilliant, personable son of a Vancouver lumber executive. Now he was a memory and a statistic, one of precisely 5.2 motorists per 100,000 killed annually in the U. S. Something else, too: he was the impetus in a Canadian father’s fight to change a California law, a lonely, 31-month fight that ended this summer, on July 1, when Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown signed a tough new bill designed to stop drunks from driving cars.
Robert Malkin, a member of a pioneer west-coast business family and then owner of several sawmills, was on a business trip in New Zealand with his wife, who operates an antique shop in Vancouver, when they heard of their son’s death. They could not get home in time for his funeral. Kit's body was cremated and his ashes were scat-
tered over Vancouver’s English Bay, where hè had often gone sailing.
Later, Malkin went to California to settle his son’s affairs. He had decided—without, at this point, any goal in mind—to talk to police, probationary officers and others connected with the case. He talked to the judge who sentenced Davis. He talked to friends and teachers of the two slaughtered young men at Stanford. He found that the deaths had triggered a reaction within the university community: an organization now known as Action For Responsible Driving had been formed. And he found that Senator Randolph Collier, of Yreka, California, was proposing two bills to the state Senate that would make an alcohol test compulsory and set a legal limit of .10 percent alcohol in the blood as a measure of drunkenness.
On Saturday, March 28, 1964, Malkin went to look at the wreck of his son’s car. He found it in a junkyard atop an old bus, battered and forgotten. Forgotten . . . it seemed all wrong, somehow. Standing there alone, Malkin saw the car as a symbol of the terrible pointlessness of his son’s death. Why should it be forgotten? Malkin made a decision. He decided to take the wreck to the people.
During the past months, Malkin has been asked many times if his motive was revenge. He was, of course, appalled by the light sentence that Davis received, especially after he discovered that Davis had a record of 11 previous driving-and-drinking convictions in Arizona and California. But, Malkin says, “I felt I had a God-given opportunity to do my public duty. I don’t go to church regularly, but there was this spiritual thing inside me. Looking back, I sometimes think I was on the verge of a mystical experience.”
But there was nothing mystical about what Malkin wanted. He
wanted a change in the law—in California, especially, but also in Canada and anywhere else where the dice were loaded in favor of the drinking driver. He wanted blood tests to be compulsory, not voluntary as they were in California and are still in most parts of Canada. He wanted legislative amendments that would make it possible for a magistrate or judge to suspend the suspected drinking-driver’s licence if he refused to submit to the test. He wanted legislation that would spell out what the results of the test meant. Malkin's stand has the support of police chiefs, safety councils and medical and legal associations. Opposed are many liberals who reason that a person forced to take an alcohol test is forced, in effect, to testify against himself.
One morning in May 1964, Malkin drove into the Stanford campus in a Jeep pick-up truck that had belonged to John Barth. On the top was the wreck of his son’s car. He parked and put up a big sign: “A Drunk Driver Killed Two Young Men In This Car.” And a small sign: “Help Stop Drunk Driving. Sign Here.” Students came to look at the wreck. They stayed to talk with Malkin. They signed the petition.
During the following months, Malkin took the wreck 3,000 miles through California. He collected 20,000 signatures.
“You know,” he recalls, “Americans are a very emotional people. Crowds always gathered where I parked, on street corners, near colleges and universities, even in front of churches on Sunday. I would say to them, T am the father of a boy who was killed by a drunken driver. This is my son’s car. I would like you to sign a petition which I’m going to present to the governor, and perhaps we can change the laws to protect you more. Will you read my petition?
“It was a simple petition, just setting out the facts, but they would read it and I saw people, even men, crying as they read it. It wasn’t easy for me. I’m a friendly person. 1 like people. But it was hard at first. But when I saw how people were, it came easier. They were sympathetic. They were kind.
“But sometimes I’d sense hostility. Maybe somebody would see the British Columbia plates on Kit’s car. Then I’d say, ‘You wonder what a Canadian is doing down here, criticizing your laws and trying to change them. I am doing it because I have to.’ Then people would say, sometimes, ‘Don’t apologize to us. We should be thanking you for doing our job.’ ”
Once, a man with a mid-European accent told Malkin he was desecrating his son’s memory and trying to make money. Malkin handed him some literature. The man walked away. A few minutes later he returned, clicked his heels, bowed and said, “I apologize, sir. I will be most happy to sign your petition.”
Malkin got to see Governor Brown, who is a fierce opponent of drinking drivers, and the two men appeared together on television. Meanwhile, the California press jumped on the story of the dignified, determined Canadian with the wrecked convertible. Malkin was invited to speak before the state Senate Judiciary Committee considering Senator Collier’s proposal. He appeared increasingly on television. He was given a special office in the Sacramento State Capitol Building—a singular honor for a Canadian.
The proceedings of the judiciary committee were televised live on two Sacramento stations. Malkin was the last witness to plead for the senator’s two bills. The committee, by a vote of eight to two, recommended passage of both of them. Late in May 1965, the California State Senate defeated them by voice vote. But in June 1966, after numerous committee hearings and amendments, a combined bill was passed by both houses of the legislature. The bill provides that persons lawfully arrested for drunk driving, who refuse to submit to blood, urine or breath tests, can have their driving privileges suspended for up to six months. The accused can demand an administrative hearing before the licence is actually suspended—but the question of whether there is
an ultimate court conviction for drunk driving
continued on page 32
ONE MAN, ONE WRECK, ONE CAUSE continued from page 23
“When this is all over, I will have made people think”
is immaterial. The bill was passed hours after the United States Supreme Court ruled five-to-four that blood tests demanded by police do not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Malkin’s California campaign was over. He had his memories and his mementos. Wrote Louis P. Bergna, district attorney for the County of
Santa Clara, where Davis had been tried: “It is impossible to be able to assign credit to any individual or group of individuals for success before a legislative body, but, if we in law enforcement get any improvements in the field of the drinking driver, 1 personally feel that you will deserve much of the credit for same.” That
was before the bill toughening up driving laws was passed.
Malkin had already returned to Canada, where he started immediately to push for similar legislation. This summer, largely as a result of his efforts, a bill was passed by the British Columbia Legislature permitting police to suspend drivers’
licences for up to 24 hours unless suspected drinking drivers submit to breathalizer tests. To Robert Malkin, the bill is a small victory in a long campaign.
“I know I’m on the right track.” he says. “I know that in 10 or 20 years the penalties will be so great that drunk driving will disappear. People just won’t dare drive after drinking. As long as I can afford it, I’m going to keep after this. It’s the only way. Money can be replaced; lives can’t. You just couldn’t understand what surges inside of me. People say, ’Yes, yes, you’re on the right track,’ but nobody does anything about it. I’m going to.”
Malkin has already seen Prime Minister Pearson, appeared on national television with Guy Favreau, then Justice Minister, and has spoken to groups whenever he has been asked. Since November 1963, he has spent more than $6,000 of his own money in the fight. He had to sell his business, now spends about two thirds of his time working as a mutual-fund salesman. The rest of his time is devoted to safety councils, high-school driver-training programs and agitation for tougher drinking-driver laws. This fall, he will testify before a House of Commons committee hearing concerned with new legislation to help curb drunken driving in Canada. The prime minister has indicated his personal support.
“When this is all over,” says Robert Malkin, “even if the laws aren’t changed, I will have made people think. You know, people are not thoughtless or cruel. They just don't realize what drunken driving costs the nation, any nation, what it does to families, and the mental torture and heartbreak, and what it does in the loss of productive minds to the state. Like my son, Kit.” ★
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