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Bakersfield Educates Teens With "A Life Interrupted"

The City of Bakersfield won the Award for Excellence for this project in the Public Safety category of the 2008 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

In 2002, Officer Don Cegielski of the Bakersfield Police Department was assigned to investigate fatal traffic collisions as part of his duties. On a cold winter night, he was dispatched to southwest Bakersfield to investigate a fatal traffic collision involving a young male driver who was traveling more than 100 miles per hour in a Honda Civic when he rear-ended a truck and trailer. A passenger in the Honda’s back seat suffered fatal injuries. Officer Cegielski determined that the driver of the car was under the influence and arrested him.

The Honda’s passengers were all teenage boys. Before the collision, these young men had been at the driver’s house drinking alcoholic beverages. The three young men got into the car and were taking one of the passengers home when the collision occurred.

This was one of several car crashes involving teen drivers in the Bakersfield area that year. By the end of 2002, 12 local teens were killed as a result of vehicle collisions in the Bakersfield metropolitan area.

These tragic events raised two questions. First, what were teen drivers being taught with regard to driving responsibly? Second, what was being done to prevent crashes related to underage drinking and unsafe driving?

In seeking answers, law enforcement realized several factors were at work. The public schools had discontinued driver’s education classes due to cost and liability issues, and teen drivers were required to attend privately operated driving schools to learn how to drive. Bakersfield police were also beginning to see the emergence of "cool parent" parties in the area: teen parties sponsored by parents who pro-vide alcohol. Representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) did not have a strong presence in the local high schools because the programs were grant based and not available to every school during the school year. As a result of these factors, educating teens about personal responsibility and wise choices had been bumped from the city’s priorities.

Assembling an Effective Program

The Bakersfield Police Department decided to create a program to better educate local teen drivers. It had to be portable and high impact to capture teens’ attention.

Staff decided to use actual photographs from fatal collisions that had occurred in the Bakersfield area. California Highway Patrol officers and Officer Cegielski reviewed collisions looking for those involving teens who had died as a result. The crashes didn’t necessarily involve driving under the influence; they also involved making poor choices while driving. The officers then approached the families to get permission to talk about their children and to use photos of the children from before the collision.

Titled "A Life Interrupted," the program features a multimedia presentation with real and sometimes very graphic collision scene photos, as well as original 911 phone call recordings. Each incident is personalized with background information on the victims. Individual presentations feature one or more parents of a teen killed in a collision, who relate the personal impact on themselves and their family. An optional component features drivers who were responsible for a death talking about how the experience changed them. The program’s key message is "Be Responsible for Your Actions."

Nancy Chaffin, whose son died as a result of one of the collisions detailed in the program, makes presentations to teens as part of "A Life Interrupted." Chaffin says, "The program provides an impactful combination of the gruesome facts and the raw emotion of personal tragedy. It’s a startling reminder that this can happen to anyone --- no one is immune." She continues, "There are no words that can express the devastation of losing a child.
 

It leaves a hole in your heart that can never be filled. The love remains strong, but all your hopes and dreams for your child are gone in an instant, their potential never realized.

"It’s tremendously rewarding when someone comes up to us after a presentation to thank us and tell us they will never drink and drive or get in a car with someone who is impaired," she adds.

Another parent presenter, Tina Antak, offers her thoughts about the program: "Losing a child is the worst experience a parent can ever face. Sharing my son’s story about his car accident has allowed me to raise the awareness about teen driving. I hope teenagers can understand that they are not invincible. My hope is that they see these pictures of my son as themselves and know how important they are to their family and friends and --- most of all --- that they will be missed."

The Kern High School District agreed to host "A Life Interrupted" in local high schools during special assemblies. In December 2002, Officer Cegielski and Officer Bullman from the California Highway Patrol made their first presentation at a local church.

Since the program’s inception in 2002, presentations have continued year round. From 2002-07, it was presented more than 200 times at local junior high and high schools, businesses and various civic and youth groups and seen by upward of 100,000 attendees. "A Life Interrupted" has also been presented at the headquarters of the California Highway Patrol and the California Office of Traffic Safety. Since 2004, the program has been wholly funded and supported by the Bakersfield Police Department and the City of Bakersfield.

Measuring the Impact

Between 2002 and 2005, the number of drivers age 20 and younger involved in alcohol-related collisions in the Bakers-
field Police Department jurisdiction dropped by 35 percent. This decrease occurred gradually, with the most significant improvement from 2004-05 when the number dropped by 50 percent. In 2007, one teen died in a collision, a far cry from the 12 killed in 2002. By continuing to focus on its target audience, repeating the key message and actively involving young drivers, their parents, schools and businesses, "A Life Interrupted" is accomplishing its goal of decreasing vehicle collisions by teaching responsible driving practices and saving the lives of young people.

With the assistance of the local media and the Kern High School District, the program has been presented in every high school in the county. Staff is involved in producing public service announcements publicizing sober graduation during the spring season and has fostered strong working relationships with all local media.

The program has enjoyed immense support from the community. In early 2008, Three-Way Chevrolet donated a new Chevrolet truck, and State Farm Insurance gave a $68,000 donation to purchase a glass-sided trailer used to display vehicles involved in featured collisions, as well as video equipment with streaming video depicting safe driving messages and stories about the victims. The truck and trailer are being used at high-school presentations and community events. Many other local companies and civic groups support the project, and the list of supporters grows on a weekly basis.

Bakersfield Police Chief William Rector says, "In more than 25 years of law enforcement, I have not seen a more powerful program than ’A Life Interrupted.’ The mothers and grandmothers involved bare their souls in each presentation, talking about their loss in hopes of convincing teenagers to drive safely and not under the influence." He adds, "This is a community partnership --- between the Police Department and parents who have lost children in driving accidents --- that focuses on teen driving safety. We are both honored and humbled to be a part of this program with them."

Contact: Gary Moore, lieutenant, Bakersfield Police Department; phone: (661) 589-6808; e-mail: grmoore@bakersfieldpd.us.

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