Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) introduces Congress to the late Abbas family, killed by a drunk driver Jan. 6, 2019. Image via CSPAN
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) introduces Congress to the late Abbas family, killed by a drunk driver Jan. 6, 2019.

At the funeral for the Abbas family, Rep. Debbie Dingell realized the time was long overdue to finally bring drunk driving to an end with a law named in their memory.

NORTHVILLE, Mich.—If things had been different, the Abbas family would still be alive. 

Issam and Rima Abbas grew up in Dearborn, knowing one another. By the time both were at Wayne State University—Issam in law school and Rima in medical school—they had married. 

They moved around the area before settling in Northville and becoming a fixture of their community. In Northville, the Abbas family and their three children lived just blocks away from Rima’s sister, Rana Abbas Taylor. 

“Everyone I meet knew them and watched out for them and their house,” Rana told the Detroit Free Press. “When they were gone, and I’d go over to check on their house, their neighbors would come over and ask if I needed anything.” 

A planned Christmas vacation in 2018 got delayed when Rima’s grandmother died. The funeral was Christmas eve, which meant the family’s Florida getaway would have to be delayed. It was that delay that found them on I-75, driving through Kentucky 

At about 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2019, Joey Lee Bailey of Georgetown, Kentucky was driving his white pickup on I-75, going the wrong direction. Bailey had been drinking, and his blood alcohol level was nearly four times the legal limit. When his pickup crashed head-on into the Abbas’ SUV, no one survived. 

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Issam, 42; Rima Abbas, 38, and their three children, Ali, 13; Isabella, 12, and Giselle, 7, lost their lives on I-75 that Saturday night, as did Bailey, 41, in an entirely preventable tragedy. If things had been different, if Bailey hadn’t gotten into his truck, everyone would have made it home safe. 

Rima would’ve had the dinner she planned with Rana the following night. 

Remembering the Abbas Family

The next day, hundreds of mourners flooded the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn with grief over the loss of the Abbas family. So many, in fact, that police had to be called in to keep traffic orderly along Ford Road. 

One of the people who attended the funeral in the following days was Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). A family of five from Dearborn, from the town she’d called home much of her life, had died tragically and suddenly. Dingell was one of many who felt the pain of that loss, even distantly, and came to pay respects. 

“I was attending the funeral, and some of the classmates of the children that were killed came up to me and said ‘Technology exists that would’ve kept our friends alive,’” Dingell told The ‘Gander. “They were right.”

Dingell knew the statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA(, someone in the United States dies an average of about once every hour to an accident involving drunk driving. In 2019, the year with the fewest fatalities on record, the Abbas family joined 10,137 others killed on American roads by drunk driving. 

“When children put the human face on it for you, you realize that it’s not somebody else’s responsibility. It’s your responsibility,” Dingell said. “And, quite frankly, it was those young people talking to me that evening that made this my mission.”

But it wasn’t a statistic that night. It wasn’t an unwieldy national problem tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the story of a family, of loved ones who didn’t come home for dinner and of children who would never again see their friends. 

“When children put the human face on it for you, you realize that it’s not somebody else’s responsibility. It’s your responsibility. And, quite frankly, it was those young people talking to me that evening that made this my mission.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn)

That mission took the form of legislation to prevent the preventable tragedies born from drunk driving. Dingell started making phone calls and conducting research immediately. 

“That next morning I got on the phone and I called the auto companies and I talked to my staff, and I said ‘We need to do something about drunk drivers,’” she recalled. 

The Honoring Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate (HALT) Drunk Driving Act was introduced in 2019. Though it didn’t get enacted, Dingell hasn’t stopped fighting for it, reintroducing the HALT Act again in 2021. She’s confident that this time, the Abbas family’s tragedy will help prevent future preventable deaths.

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HALTing Drunk Driving

The kids were right, technology exists today that would prevent cars from even moving if the driver was above the legal limit for blood alcohol content. One such tool, the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) is being developed by NHTSA in partnership with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.

Far from just attaching a standard breathalyzer to a car, Dingell explained that the kinds of things DADSS has been developing are unobtrusive and accurate. 

“There are a number of technologies that are available now,” Dingell explained. “There’s technology that, when you put your fingers on the steering wheel, it can tell if your blood alcohol level is at a certain level.”

DADSS is looking at both a breath-based and touch-based detection system that would quickly, accurately, and affordably determine if a driver was impaired. Affordability would allow such a system to become as widespread a safety measure as airbags or anti-lock brakes. 

Dingell’s proposal would start the ball rolling on the rulemaking process that would make DADSS or other drunk driving prevention technology a standard safety feature in new cars within the next few years. 

“What this bill would do is require NHTSA to install prevention technology,” Dingell explained. “It will require NHTSA to do a rulemaking, study these technologies, and make recommendations.”

HALT, which is cosponsored by Reps. David McKinley (R-WV) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY), is matched in the Senate by the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act. While the House version of the bill has already passed, there are still steps needed before the Abbas’ story finally hits President Joe Biden’s desk.

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That leaves it to be combined with the Senate’s RIDE Act. Both pieces of legislation have been supported by both Republicans and Democrats, but some minor differences between the two still need to be ironed out, explained Dingell.

“I’m working very closely with [Sens.] Ben Luján (D-NM), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to get this legislation through,” Dingell explained about a fine tuning stage of the process. 

She believes it will soon become law, she said. And whatever the final form of the bill is, it’ll lead to standardized drunk driving prevention technology in the coming years.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) continues to advocate for an end to the preventable drunk driving deaths seen hourly in the United States. Getting HALT signed is a top priority for the group.
“The time is now to pass this bipartisan bill and put an end to the trauma suffered by drunk driving victims and their families as a result of someone else’s bad choice,” said MADD National President Alex Otte in a statement. “MADD is so grateful for Congresswoman Dingell’s leadership to set in motion one of the most important pieces of legislation in MADD’s 40-year history.”