Don't do anything stupid, teen drivers are told
Slow down. Put the cell phone away. Don't drink and drive.
In the first presentation of its kind in the state, two young people stood up in a New London church hall Monday night and described their personal tragedies in an effort to convince a group of their peers that driving while distracted is unsafe and unwise.
Drivers under the age of 21 who had been cited for infractions such as speeding, texting while driving or possession of alcohol by a minor were ordered by the court to attend the Mothers Against Drunk Driving impact panel. Forty-seven young people paid the $50 fee, turned off their cell phones and listened for an hour before receiving a certificate that would enable them to have their cases thrown out of court.
"Please don't make the same mistake that I made," said Jaime Sanchez, 21, of Woodbridge. "Don't text and drive. Don't drink and drive. Because that one moment can be your last moment."
Three years ago, Sanchez took his eyes of the road for a split second when he thought he heard his cell phone ringing.
"I looked over and looked back up," Sanchez said. "I had crossed from the right side of the road to the wrong side of the road, struck a guardrail, then hit somebody head on and killed them."
The victim was a man in his late 70s. Sanchez, a college student, served four months of house arrest for negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and is still on probation. As part of the community service component of his sentence, he has visited high schools throughout the state to tell his story.
Jessica Warnock, 22, a recent graduate of the University of New Haven, introduced the group to her little brother, James, by projecting a slide of a smiling, red-headed high school football player. Then she showed the crash scene in which he and three others died in 2007, followed by a picture of his headstone.
"This is what I get to visit now on holidays," she said.
James Warnock was riding on a road near their New Jersey home with his best friend and another teen. They were speeding. They struck another car, and all three teenagers plus the driver of the other car died on impact.
Warnock was sharing her story with this type of audience for the first time.
"If it slows one person down, it will make a difference," she said.
New London prosecutor Peter A. McShane said he approached MADD with the idea of the panel because he is seeing more and more incidents of distracted driving. Cell phone texting is particularly insidious.
"People are as impaired texting while driving as they are driving while under the influence of alcohol," McShane said. He told the group that when he started as an assistant state's attorney 21 years ago, none of the prosecutors wanted to try drunken drivers.
"The attitude was, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' '' McShane said. "MADD helped to change that. I hope now the same will happen with texting while driving and use of a cell phone while driving."
Norwich prosecutor David Cordone, a former police officer, said the lowest part of his career was when he had to investigate an accident in which three youths from the same class were killed. The most comforting thing he could tell the parents was that their children died on impact.
"I don't want your parents to go through that," he told the group.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6,000 people die and another 500,000 are injured annually in car crashes caused by drivers using texting and GPS devices.
That young people are addicted to their cell phones was obvious during the panel discussion when a teen's phone rang despite an instruction to shut off all electronic devices and a warning that they would be confiscated if they rang. The teen looked sheepish as MADD's executive director, Janice Heggie Margolis, swooped in and took his phone.
State law prohibits the use of cell phones and other hand-held electronic devices while driving. Drivers 18 or older are permitted to use cell phones with hands-free devices. Younger drivers are not.
Johana Krebs, who monitors court cases for MADD, described three types of distracted driving - manual, visual and cognitive. She told the participants they could wait to pick up that phone call and said that even changing the radio station while driving is a distraction.
"That really bad song? It will end," she said.
Stephanie Morales of Groton, a University of Connecticut student who does not drive, said she was charged with possession of alcohol by a minor after she and a friend were pulled over and police found an unopened bottle of alcohol in the car. She said she found Monday's presentation too graphic.
"I have friends that died (in car crashes) and it may bring back flashbacks," Morales said.
Annmarie Brusky, 18, of Groton was cited for failure to drive right. She said she already takes distracted and drunken driving seriously because her ex-boyfriend, Patrick Perkins of Griswold, was killed in a crash on New Year's Eve. She was impressed by the program.
"I thought it was great to hear people with their own situations," Brusky said.
Brenda Day of Bristol accompanied her 18-year-old daughter, Melissa, to the panel and cried afterward when she thought about what could happen.
"I don't ever want to be looking at a casket with my own child," the mother said.
Melissa Day, who was pulled over for driving 80 mph in a 65 mph zone on Route 2 in Colchester, said she would slow down.