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Sobering lessons for teen-agers who 'think they're never going to die'

December 18, 1986|KAREN ROEBUCK

Cathy Johnson, a senior at Mira Costa High School, considers herself lucky--she has never been in an alcohol-related accident.

Last week, Johnson told her schoolmates about a family friend who was not so lucky. The woman, who was eight months pregnant, was riding with her drunk husband on New Year's Eve four years ago when their car went off a cliff in Malibu and rolled over four times.

She was thrown from the car and she and her unborn baby were killed. Her other child, now 14, is paralyzed from the waist down. The woman's husband suffered injuries requiring about 60 stitches. He was later sentenced to a year in prison for vehicular manslaughter, Johnson said.

She also told about going to the accident scene, getting sick when she saw her friend's unrecognizable body being hoisted up by a helicopter and hearing her injured 10-year-old daughter calling for her mother.

"It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life," Johnson told the attentive Mira Costa students, "and I hope it never happens to any of you guys. I hope you never have to see a friend or a loved one killed."

Johnson shared her painful memories with the students in Manhattan Beach during a program by the Redondo Beach Police Department aimed at persuading teen-agers not to drive under the influence of alcohol. Today and Friday, the department will take the same message to Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, in time for the holiday season.

"Mira Costa, like Redondo High School and the others in the area, has a real problem with drinking and drugs. . . . Our kids are driving and there's a real concern," Mira Costa Principal Gary Hartzell said.

" . . . Despite the best efforts of home, family, school and law enforcement, some kids are going to drink. . . . The peer pressure in the teen-age world today isn't going to allow many kids to escape that."

Johnson said she wanted to tell her peers about her friend's accident because "everybody thinks it won't happen to them. . . . Teen-agers don't understand they aren't immortal. They think, 'I'll go to a party, I'll drink, and I'll go home and I'll sleep it off.' "

Crime Prevention Specialist Cathryn Gimbel agreed. "Teen-agers have a real big problem with immortality," she said. "They think they're never going to die."

But, she added, alcohol-related accidents are "the No. 1 killer of teen-agers today. It's almost an epidemic."

Last year, 3,115 youths ages 15 to 19 died in alcohol-related accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But Gimbel said she does not bore students with statistics.

She tries to get them to think "about the other people involved."

"What happens," she asked them, "if you kill your best friend? What happens if you kill your parents? . . . That's a sobering thought."

The first day of the program, Gimbel and Officer Jim Acquarelli showed the students a 30-minute film in which people who were affected by fatal, alcohol-related accidents--those whose relatives were killed, youths who survived wrecks, a woman in prison for causing an accident--related their feelings.

Gimbel and Acquarelli also discussed the practicalities of driving under the influence--the effects, the laws and the subsequent court process. The program was presented six times at Mira Costa to groups ranging from 60 to 300 students.

The Police Department is not condoning drug use or drinking among minors, Gimbel said, but "I'm not there to lecture them and tell them all the evils. . . . I'm there to let them know what the consequences and dangers are."

She said she frequently uses the word "crime" in her discussions, "because you do become a criminal when you drink and get behind the wheel of a car. You're basically handling a 5,000-pound weapon."

Acquarelli gave several students sobriety tests, prompting several jokes from the students. "He's already drunk," they insisted when one boy was chosen for the test.

Despite the jokes, students in most of the groups were attentive and asked a lot of questions, some relating to driving under the influence and others about bad experiences they have had with officers in the past.

Several wanted to know why police officers stop teen-agers who have not done anything wrong, apparently because of the way they look. Others wanted to know why police shove around even cooperative youths or why a friend who was caught with marijuana or some other drug was let go instead of being charged.

Acquarelli most often said he could not answer the questions without knowing all the circumstances, but tried to offer possible explanations--maybe an innocent gesture by the teen-ager was misinterpreted by the officer, or maybe the officer was having a bad day, or maybe he had an ego problem, or maybe he did not have enough evidence for an arrest.

Maybe it was just a bad cop, he said.

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