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St. Petersburg nonprofit pushes teen drivers to be more safety conscious

“We’re here to learn what each of us can do to prevent teen driving (tragedies).” Bruce Murakami, the driving force behind Safe Teen Driver

CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2000)

“We’re here to learn what each of us can do to prevent teen driving (tragedies).” Bruce Murakami, the driving force behind Safe Teen Driver

Jennifer Graber took a mock sobriety test while wearing "drunk goggles" during a special demonstration Tuesday by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office at St. Petersburg College in Seminole.

A few hours later a couple of miles to the north at Indian Rocks Christian School, John Templeton Jr. was telling about his horrifying experience with the real thing.

"I woke up handcuffed to a gurney and was told I was under arrest for vehicular homicide," said Templeton, a 19-year-old University of South Florida student in 2002 when he killed 18-year-old Julie Buckner in a drunken-driving crash on Interstate 275.

Templeton, now 25, and others shared their stories at "Driven to Make a Difference," a community event put on by Safe Teen Driver, a St. Petersburg nonprofit, with the goal of stopping teen driving deaths.

Both the teen driving event and goggle demonstration aim to raise awareness this fall during the homecoming season when young drivers tend to be on the road late at night after football games and parties.

Graber, a 30-year-old SPC student from Largo, said she felt instantly drunk when she put on the goggles.

An outreach program of the Sheriff's Office, goggles simulate a range of impairment from "light buzz but still legal," to "more than double the legal limit."

"Drinking is a slow process; your mind adjusts," Graber said. "You don't notice the changes like this."

With a goggle-induced blood-alcohol level of at least 0.17, more than twice the threshold at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle, Graber could not walk a straight line and failed the sobriety test repeatedly.

Michelle Grosso, a 19-year-old SPC student from Largo, wore the goggles that represented the legal limit. "It's amazing," she said. "That's just after a couple of drinks. Just at the legal limit you're already so messed up."

At Indian Rocks Christian School, the parent and teen event was as emotional as it was somber.

Bruce Murakami is the driving force behind Safe Teen Driver. The organization is Murakami's tribute to his wife and young daughter, who were killed by a teen driver in 1998.

The teen involved was not drinking but racing on a busy Tampa street.

In his presentation, Murakami referred to the April crash in Seminole that took the lives of four local high school students and injured another.

"In this community, four young lives were lost," Murakami said. "We're here to learn what each of us can do to prevent teen driving events."

Murakami's story was made into an award-winning Hallmark movie Crossroads in 2007. Available on DVD, the movie was aired for Tuesday's audience. The movie ended with more than a few sniffles and an emotional Murakami took the stage.

"There's no shortage of stories like mine," he said.

As Murakami introduced Justin Cabezas, the audience was silent.

"My name is Justin Cabezas," said the thin, short-haired young man. "I'm the one that killed Cindy and Chelsea Murakami."

Bruce Murakami actually lobbied to keep Cabezas out of jail and a plea deal was worked out involving house arrest and community service. The community service has been served, but Cabezas continues to work with Murakami to get the word out.

When Cabezas finished his story of regret and forgiveness, Steven Fulton, 14, of Seminole reflected the views of many teens in attendance.

"It's crazy," he said. "It's just crazy how fast something bad can happen."

To learn more

Safety a priority

For information about Safe Teen Driver, visit safeteen

St. Petersburg nonprofit pushes teen drivers to be more safety conscious 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 9:09pm]
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