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Drunken driving accident victim warns graduates

Kevin Malan was a cocky kid, a new graduate of the University of Illinois and ready to start a new job. It was party time. He was drinking. So was his friend. When the two of them got ready to go home, it was his friend who got behind the wheel.

The curve was tough to negotiate for drivers who were sober. It was impossible for one who was both drunk and asleep at the wheel. The Corvette crashed into the guard rail. And Malan spent the next seven months in a coma, able to hear and understand people around him _ even the doctor who told people in his room, "He might be brain dead" _ but unable to respond in any way.

Today Malan is 30 years old and living in Pinellas Park. He has one thing he wants to say to the Pinellas high school seniors who will graduate this week and begin the inevitable round of graduation parties: "You are not invincible."

"I thought I had the world by the tail," he said in the slow, slurred speech that is the best he can muster after five years of speech therapy. "But like they say, if you're going to dance, you've got to pay the fiddler. And he charges a heck of a lot."

The costs for Malan were enormous. Damage to the brain stem. Inability to speak. Six years in a wheelchair because his sense of balance was gone. Years of painful physical therapy to enable him to walk with difficulty. A college education down the drain. No job. Having to live with and depend on his parents when other young men were marrying, having children and climbing the career ladder.

In September, Kevin moved out of his parents' home and into an apartment. At last he is on his own, but it hasn't been an entirely positive experience. He has more time alone now, and he says he spends too much of that time sitting and thinking about college and what might have been.

This week can be a frightening time for parents of teen-agers. Youngsters have a lot to celebrate. School ends, summer vacation begins, and high school seniors graduate. One of the most popular ways to celebrate is at house parties.

While lots of those parties won't cause any problems for anyone, police will spend plenty of time breaking up parties where underage youths are drinking. At some of those parties, no adults will be on the premises. They may not even know their homes are being used as Party Central. At others, the adults will be there, looking the other way while kids drink or even dispensing the beer themselves, despite a new state law that holds them liable.

And teens too drunk to know what county they are in, much less negotiate a curve, will get in their cars after the parties and drive themselves home. Most will make it safely. Every year, it seems, some do not.

A group called Pinellas Informed Families recently formed in Pinellas County to work on ways to keep young people safe. It preaches a message about not drinking and driving. But its primary project is Safe Homes, a national program that seeks to create a network of homes where parents pledge that no alcohol will be served at teen parties.

Parents participating in the program sign a pledge to be at home when their teen-agers have parties and to make sure that alcohol and illegal drugs are not consumed. The names of those who sign up are shared, so parents can feel safer about their teen-agers going to parties in those homes.

Donna Werdell of Operation PAR and Pinellas Informed Families is recruiting parents for Safe Homes. In order to be successful, a large network must exist. In some communities, hundreds of families have signed up. Werdell would like to hear from parents who are interested in information about Safe Homes or who want to sign a pledge. Speakers also are available to explain the program to groups. Werdell can be reached at 570-5095.

What a great time of year for young people. The hard work is behind them for a while. They want to celebrate. They have big plans. They are looking ahead eagerly to the rest of their lives.

But Kevin Malan would like to pass along a message: Be careful. Make sure you don't have to spend the rest of your life looking back.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.

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