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Teen drivers learn hard lessons the safe way

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Two men turn tragedies into positives and save lives in the process.

By Mitch Traphagen

PALMETTO — Bruce Murakami spent three years working to ensure the young man who killed his wife and 11-year-old child was punished. He hired a private investigator and crime scene reconstruction experts. He relentlessly pursued prosecutors to bring charges against the 19-year-old who, while street racing in Tampa, slammed into the minivan his wife was driving. He wanted justice.

Standing on the verge of success, with the young man Jason Cabezas pleading guilty to two counts of manslaughter, Murakami chose a different course. He asked the judge to withhold the guilty plea. He had forgiven Cabezas and, instead of a possible 30-year prison sentence, he asked the judge to allow both him and Cabezas to work together to educate teenagers about safe driving.

“Once the idea of forgiveness flowed into my mind and heart, I started thinking how I could turn something so negative into something positive,” Murakami said.

His change of heart came after meeting Cabezas alone and he realized that Jason was in as much pain as he was. The result was a nonprofit organization known as Safe Teen Driver, dedicated to teaching young people about the dangers of reckless driving and working towards helping victims and families of all vehicular crimes.

Together Murakami and Cabezas have spoken to students at high schools across Hillsborough County and they have appeared on NBC’s Dateline and the Oprah Winfrey show. In his wife Cindy’s and daughter Chelsea’s memory, the mission continues.

Barry Marcone is a different kind of victim of vehicular crime. In 2007, his son, Chris, drove while drunk and killed a 13-year-old girl. Chris was sentenced to 13 years in prison — one year for each year of his victim’s life.

He saw the suffering and the grief of the young victim’s family. He saw his son agonize over what he had done and the realization that there was no way for him to take it back or to make things right. Barry could not condone what his son had done, but he was still Chris’s father.

Like Bruce Murakami, Barry looked for something, anything, positive that could result from the devastation. Today Chris is in prison. On Monday morning, Barry stood before students at East Bay High School to tell his story, to help young people understand that drinking and driving can not only destroy their lives, but also the lives of their families and of innocent victims. It has been four years since his son took the life of a young girl — not enough time to heal the wounds. The pain remains in his eyes and in his words.

On Sunday, Bruce Murakami and Barry Marcone met with teenagers and their parents at Andersen RacePark on U.S. Highway 41 in Palmetto as part of Murakami’s Safe Teen Driver program known as TRACK — Teaching Road Awareness and Consequences to Kids. TRACK is designed to give teenagers the opportunity to experience and practice driving skills and to learn from experience how alcohol or drugs can impair their driving abilities.

The program is designed to be not only eye-opening and educational, but also to allow the young people to have some fun on the racetrack. For the young people who take part, Murakami insists that at least one parent or guardian be on hand for the entire program.

“Parents need to understand they play a far more important role than they may realize in educating their children,” he said.

Fatal Vision Goggles. Mitch Traphagen PhotoStanding next to the racetrack, Mike Shirley, along with Sean Washington, of East Bay High School’s Driver Education department, gave the teens the bottom line. Drinking or using drugs while driving will end their lives as they know it. If celebrities and sports stars aren’t cool enough to talk their way out of such situations, they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they’ll have the ability. He handed one girl a large pair of goggles, known as Fatal Vision Goggles, designed to simulate what a drug or alcohol impaired person might see. He asked her to walk over to a nearby golf cart and drive a course of orange cones. She staggered to the cart, slowly sat down and took off, running over cones as she went. In a real-world situation, those cones could have been street signs, or an innocent bicyclist, or a 13-year-old girl.

As part of the course, the young people also gained firsthand knowledge of the real dangers of distracted driving, such as what happens when using a cell phone while driving.

Barry Marcone created drivingsober.net, a website filled with the stories of victims and with resources for young people to help guide them away from becoming the next statistic.

“Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens,” Marcone said. “Together we can change that.”

Also on the website is a letter his son wrote from prison.

My name is Christopher S. Marcone and I am an inmate of the Florida Department of Corrections. I am serving [a] 13-year prison sentence for D.U.I. manslaughter. On April 12, 2007, I made a fatal mistake of getting behind a wheel drunk. Because of my intoxication I ended up running a stop sign and hit an oncoming car. A thirteen year old girl lost her life and three others were critically injured as a result of this accident that I caused. After I serve my time and my sentence is up I will once again be able to reunite with my family and friends. That will never happen for the family and friends of the young girl that was killed due to my reckless actions. Although I will eventually be released and sent home to be with my loved ones, I will live with this accident for the rest of my life.

Chris will be 37-years-old at the end of his sentence.

Marcone’s nonprofit organization doesn’t earn or seek revenue or donations of any kind, so he continues to work for a paycheck to keep it going, to do what he can to ensure that no other parent will lose a child to a drunk or drug-impaired driver — or to the bars of a state prison. But most of all, he wants to protect young people.

“This is for the kids. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes, but you have to follow your heart.”

On Monday morning at East Bay High School standing before a group of students telling a very difficult story, he did just that.

The next TRACK event will take place on Nov. 6, 2011, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is open to young people from 14 to 18 years old. One parent or guardian must be on hand for the entire program. To register, visit www.safeteendriver.org.

Barry Marcone’s website contains a wealth of resources for young people to stay safe while driving. Marcone is also available to schools and other organizations as a public speaker. For more information, visit www.drivingsober.net.

Information about Andersen RacePark is available at www.andersenracepark.com.

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