‘They wouldn’t say . . . whether Amy was alive or dead.’ : Steering Clear of Accidents : ‘Safe Rides’ Program Credited for Drop in Teen Drunk Driving


A warm August night quickly turned into “every mother’s nightmare” for Nancy Pestritto.

A knock on the door at 11:15 brought the frightful news that her 15-year-old daughter, Amy, had been in a serious car accident. Pestritto would later find out that the driver of the car Amy was in had been drinking.

“All the police would tell me is get to the hospital--fast,” Nancy Pestritto said. “They wouldn’t say anything else, whether Amy was alive or dead. Just get to the hospital.”

After eight hours of surgery and three days of unconsciousness, Amy finally opened her eyes. This week, instead of starting the 10th grade at Dana Hills High School, Amy Pestritto is recuperating at home and hopes to walk again “in about a month.”


The last five weeks have made Nancy Pestritto a believer in the 8-year-old Safe Rides program, a parent-student volunteer organization originally launched by the Boy Scouts and now under the guidance of high school administrators. The program offers weekend rides to teen-agers, no questions asked.

Under the Safe Rides system, volunteer students operate telephone lines and respond to students who call for “taxi” service from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays during the school year.

While such a system may not have been available for Amy Pestritto on a summer night, it has made high school students more cautious about climbing into a car with someone who has been drinking, as Amy did, said Dr. Thomas Shaver, a surgeon who operated on the girl at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center’s trauma center.

“Safe Rides is not a panacea,” Shaver said. “But it is the component that takes the word to the high school community that it’s not OK to drink and drive. It doesn’t address drinking, that’s a family and religious thing. But it does say don’t drink and drive.”


Amy Pestritto says she remembers nothing of her accident, not even leaving her house late on a Sunday night, Aug. 4, with a man she had never previously met. About 10 p.m. they headed toward Salt Creek Beach for a party. They never got there.

According to the police report, her companion, James Paul Buck, 23, of Laguna Niguel, lost control of a Volkswagen Rabbit while traveling at high speed on Crown Valley Parkway and hit a tree. He was not hurt seriously, but it took paramedics 35 minutes to cut the critically injured Amy out of the car using the Jaws of Life device.

When she got to the trauma center, Amy Pestritto was “at death’s door,” Shaver recalled.

“When she was brought in, completely covered by a blanket, it put a shudder of terror in me,” Shaver said. “I thought: ‘This child is going to die.’ She had major head injuries, was bleeding internally, had ruptured both lungs, a bruise to her heart, a crushed liver bleeding into the abdomen, a broken pelvis and had broken both bones in her left leg.”


Nancy Pestritto was upstairs brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed when the police knocked on her door. She dashed off to the hospital to find her daughter covered by a plastic blanket for warmth, being X-rayed and prepared for surgery.

“There is no way in the world to describe how you feel when this is happening,” Pestritto said. “The world shuts down. All you can think is that you might be losing your baby.”

As a trauma center surgeon, Shaver has seen these kinds of scenes too often. They prompted his involvement in South County Safe Rides, the local version of the program now operating in 17 public and private high schools throughout the county. There are 650 similar programs nationally, according to a Boy Scouts of America spokesman.

Shaver said the program in South County is paying off.


“In 1985 and ’86, 50% of our trauma injuries to young people were related to alcohol. Currently it’s 25% or 26%,” Shaver said. “Whatever has been happening in society has been working, and Safe Rides is a distinct part of that.”

San Clemente High School Vice Principal Jeff Davis will vouch for that. He started Safe Rides at his school six years ago and has watched it change students’ attitudes.

“I got tired of hearing students come to school on Monday and talk about how wasted they were over the weekend, how they didn’t even remember how they got home. It was a disaster waiting to happen,” Davis said. “Today, I can say it’s no longer cool to talk about how wasted you were. I’m not willing to say the amount of drinking among our students has gone down, but the amount of drinking and driving has definitely gone down. Kids actually have designated drivers now.”

Volunteer drivers and dispatchers work out of central locations under the Safe Rides system, answering telephones and awaiting late night calls. In the South County, volunteers are at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital in Dana Point and Saddleback Memorial Hospital in Laguna Hills.


“The kids pass through the emergency room when they go out on a call from Saddleback (Memorial Medical Center),” said Joan Kirschenbaum, a teacher at El Toro High School who coordinates Safe Rides for the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “That has an impact on them. All they need to see is one accident and they know they are not wasting their time.”

A tutor twice a week will ensure that Amy Pestritto’s time on her back on a rented hospital bed in her living room is not all watching television. She hopes to be back in school by the second semester.

In the meantime, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is seeking a felony drunk-driving charge against Buck, the driver in Pestritto’s accident, said Lt. Robert Rivas.

Nancy Pestritto has enlisted her support for the Safe Rides program, to start again this month. “I’m the first first volunteer for the year,” she said.