Losing sisters to impaired driver set woman on course to raise awareness

Andrea Spracklin
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Encourages people to plan a safe ride home during the holidays

Josephine Gaulton-Rowe was 20 years old when she heard the news that two of her sisters had died in a car crash with an impaired driver.

It was April of 1983.

She was in Labrador City at the time, staying at a friend’s home for the Easter Weekend. She had been living and working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“I got a call on a Saturday morning,” recalled Gaulton-Rowe.

Josephine Gaulton-Rowe is with the Labrador West chapter of MADD. She lost two sisters 30 years ago as a result of someone’s decision to drive while impaired.
— Photo by Andrea Spracklin/The Aurora

“I was in bed and it was early — about 8 a.m. My friend asked me to come downstairs. When I did, there was a priest sitting at the table. I don’t remember who the priest was. From there it was kind of like a blur. I sat at the table and we had a lengthy discussion. I don’t remember how he told me my sisters were killed — the only thing I can remember from that conversation was him saying, ‘You have more sisters.’

“Obviously, he told me and I guess I was in shock.”

The crash happened in the family’s hometown, located on the west coast of Newfoundland.

“One sister, Julia, was 16, and Mary was 17 and had just graduated that June. Julia didn’t get to graduate,” said Rowe.

“They were at a school dance in another community — about 20 minutes from where we lived — and were going home. They got a ride with their friend who told them he was OK to drive. They got in with him and two other guys. There were a total of five of them. My brother also got in, but because there was too many — luckily, he got out of the car. They drove about 12 kilometres and passed our house. My sisters had wanted to get out since they were home, the boys in the car told them later. The driver said, ‘No, I’ll drop the boys off first and bring you back.’ He was just a few hundred feet away from our house when there was a turn. He didn’t make the turn and rolled the car.”

She said because the crash was in sight of the family home, they heard and saw the crash.

“We were — and are — a very close-knit family,” noted Rowe. “There were nine kids, and my mother raised us children on her own because my father died very young. It changed my mother. My mother went to her grave a changed person. She actually moved to Labrador City. We were all shocked.”

Gaulton–Rowe also left Goose Bay permanently because of the crash. She said she didn’t stay there because she “couldn’t get her life back together there.”

“I did go back to Goose Bay for a while, but I became a hermit,” said Rowe. “I didn’t go anywhere. My friends said I can’t do this the rest of my life, and then I would go out. But every time I would see a young girl , I’d say, ‘Well, my sisters are never going to do this.’ So, for me, I had to leave.”

She said when her mother started to mention moving to Labrador City, the kids ignored it, thinking their mother was never going to leave the island because that’s where she had lived her whole life and she loved it.

Then the family came to realize she was serious. Their mother was a quiet person and they all figured she couldn’t get her life back together in their home community.

Gaulton-Rowe said her two sisters were very fun loving.

“One was trying to decide what she was going to do. The other was in Grade 12 looking forward to graduating and both having the rest of their lives ahead of them,” she said.

“They say time heals everything. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but now when I see young people, I think, what would they have become? Would we have more nieces and nephews? What would they have done with their lives and would they have made a difference in the world? That type of thing.

Birthdays and special occasions are reminders for the family of what might have been.

“It’s always (a reminder) because at 16 and 17, they didn’t get a chance to grow up.”

Gaulton-Rowe is deeply involved with the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

She feels awareness of impaired driving has definitely improved over the years, and though there are still numerous cases on the court docket, she doesn’t think it’s decreasing, but it’s not increasing, either.

She said the RNC tells MADD the majority of traffic stops these days are the result of someone calling 911.

“That is a change,” she notes.

“Back when my sisters were killed, it was a friend of theirs that did this. He didn’t plan to do this, but because of his choices, the result is the same. I think he went to jail for seven months maybe — I know it wasn’t a year. I don’t know if the punishment can ever fit the crime. It has gotten better, and things change slowly. Our governments are not fast to do things.”

Gaulton-Rowe said it’s likely higher sentences are handed down these days since the culture and times have changed in the last 30 years.

“Drinking and driving then was almost an accepted practice — people just did it. They drank and got in their vehicles, drove off and it was kind of like a part of life, whereas now it’s not accepted,” she said.

The MADD chapter in Labrador West recently marked its 10th year in the area and continues to work towards prevention of impaired driving and education.

“I know we have made a difference here. Before we started, people had the attitude, ‘It’s not my business,’ and, ‘I’m not getting involved.’ Now, it’s the opposite. They don’t know a person is impaired — that’s not their job. That’s the RNC’s job, so they do call. In these towns, people have changed their attitudes drastically. It is very positive.”

Another strategy she said seems to be making strides is having someone affected by impaired driving talk to offenders.

“In this program we do a presentation and always try and have the victims speak,” she said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Gaulton-Rowe encourages anyone celebrating the holidays to have a plan for a safe ride home.


The Aurora

Organizations: Mothers Against Drunk Driving

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Goose Bay, Labrador West

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Recent comments

  • david
    December 23, 2013 - 09:52

    Awareness isn't the problem here .... being relatively and largely uncivilized is the problem. There will be more dsrunk drivers on the road this Christmas than sober ones....much to their peril. A tiny fraction will get caught, hopefully before they injure or kill someone. And the next day, a whole new bunch will take their place on the roads, and roll the dice all over again. Feeling lucky?.

  • flexxa
    December 23, 2013 - 09:11

    ...as a family we lost a mother (grandmother) and nephew (son) to a distracted driver. Bottom line - (drinking, drugs, distracted, texting, sleep etc) behind the wheel is a serious responsibility and while the police seem to apprehend and levy the fines the judicial system is extremely lenient on the punishment. As Ms. Gaulton-Rowe suggests events like this affect a large circle of families and friends for the rest of their lives and change who we may have become not alone taken away all the potential of those who have been killed. Once it happens to your family you never forget it.