By Lisa Capobianco
A damaged van parked outside Southington High School last week served as a reminder for students about the consequences of distracted driving.
The van, which was actually involved in a texting and driving incident, served as one part of a presentation that has become a tradition at Southington High: the distracted driving assembly. For seniors at the high school, the assembly serves as a reminder to think before getting behind the wheel intoxicated or texting while driving, especially since graduation is just around the corner.
“It’s such a real thing and your life can turn around in the blink of an eye,” said Steve Barmore, the president of the National Honor Society at Southington High.
“It’s as simple as just thinking about their actions,” said Southington High School Principal Dr. Martin Semmel. “Given that this is one of the best times for a senior, we want to make sure they’re enjoying themselves, but make sure they do it in a good way.”
During a distracted driving assembly, students learned about the consequences of drinking and driving as well as texting and driving through a presentation put together by Dina DeGumbia, the PTO president at Southington High, School Resource Officer Don Mackenzie and Lou Martocchio, a lawyer in town.
“It’s a real community effort to do our best to keep kids safe,” Semmel said.
DeGumbia has served as a certified trauma/SWAT nurse at Yale New-Haven Hospital. She assembled together different video clips of actual motor vehicle accidents, some of which had graphic details to show the reality of the consequences caused by distracted driving. A nurse for 25 years, DeGumbia said she has seen the medical outcomes of distracted driving accidents too often.
“Unfortunately I have had a lot of experience caring for critically injured teenagers who have both lived and died due to car accidents, and those car accidents were due mostly because of distracted driving,” said DeGumbia, who currently has two children attending Southington High.
One video featured a texting accident that involved two 16-year-old girls. The texter, who blew through an intersection and t-boned another girl, died with a massive open head injury after getting ejected from the car and landing on her head. The victim, who was not breathing, suffered different injuries, including a crushing chest injury. Students also saw a video depicting an actual brain surgery as the result of a distracted driving accident.
“My goal was for you to see the outcome if you choose to make those decisions,” DeGumbia told seniors. “I see this every day.”
During the assembly, Mackenzie provided an overview of the different types of distracted driving and emphasized the importance of wearing a seatbelt. If worn properly, a seat belt can reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Young people are also most likely to text and talk behind the wheel.
“Think before you do it—don’t be a statistic,” said Martocchio, adding that the driver of the van displayed outside the school survived the accident. “It takes a split second to change the rest of your life.”
During his presentation, Martocchio explained the legal consequences of distracted driving in both criminal and civil cases.
“We’re the second strictest state in the entire country when it comes to juvenile drinking and driving,” Martocchio said. “If you get caught drinking and driving…you go to prison for 90 days, and at a bare minimum you do 48 hours.”
The assembly also included two guest speakers who shared their personal stories with students. For guest speaker Lauren Beja, the message of the assembly itself hit home. Beja’s parents were killed by a man who was talking on his cell phone while driving.
“It happened years ago, but it’s so real,” said Beja, warning students to think before they get behind the wheel. “It changed my life.”
The message also resonated with guest speaker Nick Richter, a graduate of Southington High., who lost his friend in a drinking and driving accident. Nine months ago, Richter’s friend was thrown from one side of the highway to another as a result of alcohol. He was on life support for six days before having his breathing tube removed. Two other people were also in the accident, including one who underwent nine hours of surgery.
Richter recalled how he and his friends never imagined they could be affected by a distracted driving accident. He reminded peers to have fun in a safe way.
“It’s not a joke,” said Richter, who has seen a distracted driving assembly at the high school. “Be safe about it, because one second can change your life.”
Richter’s story resonated with Senior Class President Peter Masters. Masters said his brother knew Richter’s friend who died in the accident, and the story served as a reminder that teenagers and adults should find an alternative to driving drunk, even if it means paying for a taxi.
“He went through the real thing,” said Masters.