Monica Zech uses her experience as a traffic reporter and public safety spokeswoman to put new motorists …On The Road To Safety
By Pat Sherman
TODAY’S LOCAL NEWS
San Diego Union-Tribune
Monica Zech doesn’t sugarcoat the consequences of unsafe driving.
As a traffic reporter for 18 years, the native San Diegan has witnessed more than her share of gruesome scenes, and she has the photos to prove it.
Teens who race down the road chatting on cell phones or drive while stewing about bad grades should be prepared to meet the “human cheese grater,” her term for concrete and asphalt.
“To give us some traction for our tires, they make these roadways … very rough,” Zech said, addressing an auditorium of 65 future drivers last Saturday at MiraCosta College’s Oceanside campus. “When you fly off your motorcycle or you’re ejected out of the car, you’ll slide against the human cheese grater. It’ll rip through your clothes, through the skin and right down to the bone….
“If you missed the roadway, that’s good, then they might find you in the guardrails and the trees,” she added, filling a screen behind her with the image of a man impaled through the groin by a roadside post.
“We often hear your last words,” said Zech, a public information officer for El Cajon’s police and fire departments.
Zech offered her tough-love traffic safety sermon during a four-week, driver education course, offered through MiraCosta’s community services department. Zech is an occasional guest lecturer for the course, which will be offered again from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 21-May 12 and May 19-June 16.
During her presentation, Zech used graphic video and images of local accidents to reinforce her message.
“Being sleepy is just as dangerous as being under the influence,” Zech said.
To illustrate, she showed footage recorded by a dashboard-mounted camera of a car piloted by a drowsy driver.
“This guy is breaking all the rules,” Zech said. “He’s half asleep, he’s not wearing a seat belt, and he’s got a Dale Earnhardt shirt on.”
“Whoa!” cried one student, as the husky driver lost control of his vehicle and was tossed like a rag doll from the front seat to the back seat, coming to rest in a jumble of crushed metal.
“Did he lose his job?” a student asked.
“Yes, he probably did,” Zech said.
“Actually, he did survive,” she added. “He just can’t walk again.”
Zech offered a caveat for chatty teens. Statistics show that 60 percent of California crashes are cell-phone related. In July 2008, all drivers will be required by law to use a hands-free device for cellular calls, she noted.
An accompanying slide showed the result of a loquacious driver of a tractor-trailer slamming into two parked cars and a house.
“He said, ‘`Oh, I think my brakes went out or something,'” Zech said. “Well, no, he was reaching for his cell phone, he finally admitted.”
Zech also discussed what she calls the “Superman/Superwoman effect,” when drivers or passengers are propelled through the windshield or ejected through a side window. She cautioned her young audience to cool it behind the wheel to avoid a fatal, superhuman status.
“If you’re going 70 miles per hour and you crash without a seat belt on, your body is thrown forward at whatever speed you’re traveling,” she said. “You’re shot straight out like a bullet.”
Three of four auto collisions are caused by road rage, Zech said. Under California’s road rage law, a person convicted of driving recklessly while enraged…a misdemeanor on the first offense … could be fined between $250 and $1,000, required to take anger management courses or spend up to six months in jail.
“If you cause an injury or death because you’re getting even, that ends up as a felony and you don’t want that on your record,” she said.
Wrapping up her talk, Zech told students that traffic safety is both a professional and a personal issue for her. In June 1992, her father was killed by a 23-year-old drunk driver. It was the man’s fourth drunken driving conviction. Her daughter was hit by a drunk driver two years ago, and suffered minor injuries.
“I feel very fortunate,” Zech said, clicking on a slide of another traffic fatality. “Some parents aren’t (so) fortunate.”
A collective gasp spread through the auditorium as Zech explained a mess of crushed metal. The impact happened when a speeding driver car plowed into a woman on her way to her wedding.
“She was killed on her way to get married,” Zech said. “There was a whole church full of people waiting for her and the cops had to break it to them.”
Steve Prior, 15, of Oceanside said he found some of the footage shocking.
“It makes you think a lot,” the El Camino High School student said.
El Camino student Rachele Johnston, 16, said she plans to share Zech’s advice with her mother. Her parents are in the process of helping her shop for a car.
“We’re looking, just seeing what the safety rate is on them,” Rachele said.
Rancho Buena Vista High student Nick Shoup, 16, said Zech’s presentation also moved him.
“It really prepares you for the reality of what could happen to you if you don’t drive safely,” Nick said.
Zack Sanders, 16, said he related to Zech’s cautionary words about avoiding road rage and being “felony stupid.” The Guajome Park Academy student is working to save money for a 2001 Honda Prelude.
“When I get older, I want to get a motorcycle, and I had no idea how much danger there really is to motorcycles,” he said.
Zech obtained much of the footage through her long-standing association with traffic investigators.
“I try to show things all around the county so they realize it’s not just (happening) in one area,” she said. “I share these experiences so they understand it could happen to anybody.”
Class instructor Marsha Young still screens retro fright films like “Red Asphalt,” though she said they don’t have the same impact as Zech’s words and images.
“This is really dramatic,” Young said. “She’s an excellent speaker.”
Behind-the-wheel driving instruction also is also offered through MiraCosta College weekday afternoons and weekends at Carlsbad, El Camino and Rancho Buena Vista high schools, and at MiraCosta’s Oceanside and San Elijo campuses.
— Pat Sherman – Reporter