MEXICO, NY – CiTi, the Center for Instruction, Technology and Innovation recently hosted the 12th annual Regional Awareness Program for young drivers to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.
The three hour program, which recurs every year in early spring as warm weather arrives and prom season approaches, delivered powerful stories from victims of drunk driving as well as the current Oswego County District Attorney and offered numerous hands on demonstrations to the effects of distracted driving.
All participants joined together in the gymnasium to listen to presentation from the Oswego County STOP DWI Program before selecting additional hands-on activities to try.
The gymnasium filled with mainly young drivers accompanied by their parents or friends as the Oswego County STOP DWI Coordinator, Robert Lighthall began his presentation to the crowd.
The main message delivered to the gathering of youngsters – “Have a plan.”
Even if you do not plan on drinking while you are out, you never know where the night will take you so you should always have a plan for where you are going and how you will get there safely, he said.
Lighthall used the story of 7-year-old Katie Flynn to drive home the message of lifelong hurt that is imposed upon victims and the families of drunk driving victims.
In a video that moved many audience members to tears, they heard the recollection of young Flynn’s story in which she was riding in a limo with her family after attending a wedding.
A drunk driver hit Flynn’s limo head on, instantly killing the driver and ultimately decapitating the seven-year-old girl who was asleep, buckled safely in the backseat. The rest of Flynn’s family survived, only to learn their young daughter did not.
The drunk driver, despite a prior DWI and a promise to his friends to not drive after drinking, was found guilty of murder in the second degree and is serving a sentence of 19 years to life in prison, despite multiple appeal attempts that were unsuccessful.
The audience’s emotional response carried over as Tracy Woodmancy as part Oswego County STOP DWI Victim Impact Panel told her personal story in which a drunk driver killed her 14-year-old daughter as she traveled to Florida for vacation.
After receiving a call in the middle of the night for an accident involving her family, Woodmancy drove hundreds of miles to learn of the loss of her daughter, all due to a drunk driver who entered the highway in the wrong direction.
She emotionally watched on as a tribute video of her daughter played for everyone to watch.
“This is a true life sentence for victims. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my daughter, that I don’t miss her,” said Woodmancy, who holds a candlelight vigil every year in her daughter’s honor. “My vacations now consist of driving 750 miles to manage a crash site twice a year.”
Shelly Potter, also with Oswego County STOP DWI Victim Impact Panel, was a mother to her toddler son and four months pregnant with her daughter in 1994 when a drunk driver claimed the life of her husband.
Potter married her high school sweetheart and was continuing their family as they built their life together. She displayed three boards of pictures for the audience to view. The first board; her life with the father of her children before the accident, the second board; actual police images from the accident, and the third board; images of life after his death.
“My children, growing up without their father,” she said of the final board.
“The guy that killed him served a four year sentence,” she continued. “But 21 years later, I’m still serving mine.”
She assured the young people in the audience that if they were brought to this presentation by their parents, it was only because they care.
“Use them!” she urged. “There’s not one parent here who wouldn’t get up to come get you if you needed them. And if it’s not your parent – there’s someone.”
All these brave presenters have made it their life’s mission to spread the devastating word of drunk driving from the victim perspective, even if to change the mind of just one person and prevent them from getting behind the wheel while drunk or with someone who has been drinking, they said.
Oswego County District Attorney, Greg Oakes approached the audience from a different prospective, as that of the prosecutor in cases against drunk drivers, and as his role of coroner in fatal accidents that happen throughout the county.
In his 15 years as a prosecutor in Oswego County, Oakes recalls working his fair share of cases against drunk drivers.
Specifically, he recalls the case in which he prosecuted a young man who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter for the death of his best friend in an accident in which he was driving under the influence.
At his sentencing, he recollects the young man turning to the victim’s family and uttering, “I wish I could trade places with him” as he crumbled in the court room.
And in that moment, Oakes knew “No matter what his sentence was, there was no sentence comparable to the one he had imposed on himself. He had to live knowing he killed his best friend,” he said.
Oakes urged the groups of friends in the crowd to turn to one another and imagine being the reason their friend was dead.
“I know the answer seems obvious, but it’s a question people never think about,” he said. And he followed the same protocol, asking the young people to turn to their parents and imagine their face as they were just informed their child had been killed.
As his role as coroner, Oakes has also responded to a number of fatal accidents in which he had to inform families of their lost love one.
“It’s far more than legal consequences, the personal impact for your loved ones is even greater. Take these lessons with you,” he begged of the crowd.
The American Bikers Aim Toward Education, or ABATE group then took the floor to emphasize how distracted driving is especially dangerous for motorcycles on the road as they bare far less protection than full size vehicles.
The ABATE speaker encouraged the audience to, “think of motorcycles as a person, not a motorcycle” as they don’t have air bags, seat belts or vehicle space to protect them. Essentially, hitting a motorcycle is like hitting a person directly, he elaborated.
He offered a few motorcycle facts to help bring awareness to people when driving a vehicle.
It’s necessary to give more room when traveling behind a motorcycle as they can slow down abruptly in ways that don’t require the brakes lights to engage; you can not always believe a turn signal on a motorcycle as they do not automatically shut off and many drivers, especially new drivers, forget to turn them off; motorcycles are legally entitled to the entire lane of traffic though they usually ride toward one side of the lane or the other, be considerate of their lane space as they often switch positions quickly for a number of reasons; and lastly, emphasizing that intersections are the most dangerous to ensure that all drivers use extra caution and always give an extra look for oncoming motorcycles.
In all, “always air on the side of caution,” is the main message taken from the ABATE group.
Those in attendance were then able to visit several different stations in which hands on experiences were available to demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving.
The Oswego County STOP DWI, District Attorney Greg Oakes and the ABATE Program were available throughout the evening for questions and conversation on their personal experiences.
The Oswego City Police Department and STOP DWI provided marijuana and alcohol goggles for participants to wear while driving through a cone course or to use on floor mats to complete tasks while seemingly under the influence as provided through the goggles.
A video demonstration presentation was available to view by CiTi’s Driver Education Program, New York State Police brought a rollover simulator to show participants what happens to passengers unsecured in the vehicle during a rollover, and AT&T Retail Account Executive, Jarrid Pearson brought a texting and driving simulator.
The AT&T demonstration was a smart phone attached to a simulator that straps around the user’s head, like goggles, which magnifies what it seen on the screen of the phone as to give the effect that the person wearing the simulator is present in what is playing on the screen.
“It’s very hi-def, it really looks like reality.” said Pearson of AT&T. “It’s just a simulation of a person driving a car when a variety of distractions occur which take your attention away from the road and then when you look up you realize you almost hit something. At the end, unfortunately you do get hit after checking a text message. You float above the car afterward, looking down on the scene. It’s a real eye opener for a lot of folks.”
16-year-old, T.J. Harding is a freshly permitted driver who proudly drove his mother to the night’s event.
He described the AT&T simulator in one word – “intense.”
He said he was looking at the phone when the hit occurred at the end of the simulation and it was a very realistic overview of real life situations.
Harding and his mother said the RAP event was very powerful and intense, but they have had many similar talks together and are all too aware that it is far too easy to look away.