Exposure to Death Aims to Save Lives
The judges and the therapists call it “reality education,” but for the seven young adults who sat through the coroner’s slide show, it was disgusting, gross, extreme--and, they conceded, effective.
The group spent Thursday morning at the coroner’s office looking at graphic photographs of twisted, broken and torn bodies of people killed in traffic accidents, domestic violence or suicide. These victims had either been drinking or were stone sober, killed by someone who had been drinking.
There was the woman who stepped outside the restaurant to fetch her sweater from her car, herself not totally alert because she had a drink in the bar while waiting for her table, who was struck by a drinking driver outside the restaurant.
There was the inebriated motorcyclist who impaled himself after rear-ending a truck that he came up on too fast.
There was the baby beat to death by a drunk parent.
Never Got Home
There was the school teacher who never got home from work, his vehicle struck head-on by a drinking driver.
There was the chronic drunk who finally put a gun to his head.
There was the man who, filled with liquor and acting on a dare, jumped into a lion’s cage and was mauled. And the man who drank himself to death on the kitchen floor, his alcohol turning to poison as it shut down his body.
It was all there--in scenes so gruesome that some of these young people couldn’t stand to look. A veteran therapist who had seen the
slides several times before lowered her head and looked down into her lap in anticipation of what the next slide would show.
This was not stock driver’s education footage most of us might remember from high school.
When County Coroner David Stark asked after his slide show if there were any questions, there was only silence.
“This was hard-core stuff,” finally said one young man who, like the others, asked not to be identified by name. “But I guess that’s what this is all about.”
Said a blond teen-age girl from Del Mar, “I don’t think I ever want to get in a car again.”
A 20-year-old Marine said he wouldn’t stop drinking beer at the clubs on base at Camp Pendleton--where the drinking age is 18--but he added, “If anyone says they think I’ve had enough, I’ll turn my car keys over to them and walk home.”
The seven, all between the ages of 18 and 20, had been convicted, or pleaded guilty, to various types of drinking-and-driving offenses in Vista Municipal Court. And, acting on recent state legislation, some Vista judges not only imposed the normal sanctions of probation, a fine and perhaps a day or two in jail depending on the offense, but went one step further.
They ordered these seven--and about 50 others since May--to participate in a private therapy program that includes not only counseling, but also a presentation by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a four-hour shift in a hospital emergency room and the graphic slide presentation, showing the ultimate penalty of drinking and driving, presented cooly and matter-of-factly by Stark.
These drinking drivers are then required to write a 500-word essay on their feelings and reaction to the program and to reflect on the offense they committed, then attend a final group counseling session where they will hear one another share their thoughts on the program and on the consequences of drinking and driving.
The program began three months ago in North County and is too young to measure hard results. But in other counties in California where judges are employing the same sanctions, the recidivism rate has dropped somewhat, officials report.
“This is reality-based education on the twin evils of drinking and driving,” said Vista Municipal Court Judge David Ryan at a recent press conference discussing the program.
“We want these people to see that they are killing themselves at an alarming rate and are taking out the rest of us, too,” Ryan said. “We want to lock in their behavior with the human suffering, that pain and suffering and misery, that is part of drinking and driving.”
Ryan credited the San Diego chapter of MADD with bringing the state legislation to his attention, and pressing him to take advantage of it when sentencing young adults guilty of drinking and driving.
Cynthia Roark, president of MADD in San Diego County, said some of the youthful offenders who attend the organization’s panel discussion appear reluctant participants.
“They come in with their arms crossed, slouched, looking down at the floor or up at the ceiling,” she said. “But, after we show them pictures of the car and pictures of my incomplete family, their expressions begin to change. It’s like they start to listen with their ears.”
One such participant agreed. “I thought I’d have to deal with a lot of mothers who would be trying to make me feel guilty,” said one girl from Del Mar, who left a beach drinking party and was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for swerving. She had a blood alcohol content of 0.15%. A level of 0.10% is legally intoxicated.
“But their presentation really hit me hard, especially when she talked about the funeral for her son.”
For others, the most moving experience of the program is the visit to an emergency room or Palomar Medical Center’s trauma center in Escondido. “You ought to see the damage that’s done to people,” said a 20-year-old who was stopped for an equipment violation--a broken headlight--but was suspected of having been drinking. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.10% at the time and was arrested. “I’m always going to be thinking about those sights in the emergency room, the damage that can be done. It sticks with you.”
Dr. Fred Hammell, director of Palomar’s trauma center, said program participants who visit the emergency room are struck by “the smell of alcohol and dirty socks, the screaming and yelling, the rearranged bodies.”
The program is coordinated in North County by a private company, Occupational Health Services, which offers similar programs throughout California. Most of its work is for employers who contract with the company to assist employees in dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.
Occupational Health Services is one of four companies in San Diego County providing a variety of therapy programs for drinking drivers, ranging from juveniles to repeat adult offenders.
Judges who support the program, which is still not widely known and used in Vista Courts, have so far sent about 50 violators, 18 to 20 years old, to Occupational Health Services. The violators pays a $60 fee and are counseled at the outset to determine their attitude toward drinking and how open they are to the program.
“Some adults are defensive or are still in denial about their drinking, but the kids are open and frank. They’re really up front about what happened to them, and that they have to deal with it,” said Dee Launt, who co-manages the program.
“The visitations (to emergency rooms or the coroner’s office) are not designed to traumatize them, but to have an impact on them,” she said. “They need to know what they’re dealing with when they drink and drive.”
The final essays are read by the judges but are not returned to the author for six months, when they are mailed to him as a kind of reminder of the experience. “It’s a shameful experience for them, and they express remorse in their letters,” said Barbara Aday, who coordinates the program with Launt. “But, lots of time, that shame goes away, and we want to remind them of their experience.”
In the compositions, the writers frequently reflect on the consequences that drinking and driving will have on their families and careers, Aday said.
The counseling session which wraps up the program is valuable, said coroner Stark, because “they’re not usually too kind on each other. One will say to another, ‘C’mon, stop shining us on.’ ”
But, for most participants, the component with the greatest impact is the coroner’s presentation. There was not, as some had expected, a tour of the morgue and the sight of bodies opened for autopsies. That, said Stark, would not be appropriate.
‘Not Here to Hassle’
Instead, Stark talked in numbers and in percentages about the carnage of drinking and driving, and relied on unsanitized photographs and his detailed commentary to carry his message. For the slide of the motorcyclist who impaled himself, Stark said simply, “You’ll see that his heart was torn out.”
He told of how relatives are notified when a family member is killed in an accident. Turning to a young Marine in the group, Stark said dryly, “You’re easy for us. All we’ve got to do is tell your commanding officer. Then your parents will see three people at their front door--a chaplain, an officer and an enlisted man. And they’ll know why.”
Stark told the group, “We’re not here to hassle you about some incident that put you here. We’re here to instill a sense of responsibility in the adult population.
“I’m happy you came here through the front door. I’ve seen faces like yours come through the back door, and, after 20 years, it’s getting kind of disgusting.”