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Trauma Nurses, Crash Victims Teach Lessons For The Road To Reckless Drivers

Julia Flucht. Kristi Finney speaks to a class of reckless drivers about her son, Dustin (right), who was killed by a drunk driver.

Distracted driving is a big problem everywhere. All three Northwest states ban texting behind the wheel. Oregon lawmakers just doubled the fine for that.

Traffic schools address the problem but studies show they are not very effective in changing the behavior of drivers. A program in Portland takes a different approach. It uses trauma nurses and car accident victims to teach lessons for the road.

People come to Trauma Nurses Talk Tough with their own expectations.

“I don’t know … like, driver safety tips … like why it’s important to have a license and drive?” suggests Paula L’Heureux, who drove without a license.

“I think it is going to be a waste of time because I’m a good driver," says Pat Gration who cited for speeding. "I just got a ticket, and so the cop said if I took the class, he’d drop the ticket.”

Janice, who failed to fully stop behind flashing bus lights and didn’t want to give her last name said, “It just seems like it’s gonna be eight hours of safety and how to drive more careful…?”

The traffic school they’re attending is next door to the trauma ward at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital.

This high-risk driving class is led by a 32-year nursing veteran, Jim Schwarz. He starts out funny. He tells us that people are “dying” to see him.

Then he turns to a gruesome slideshow.

“Here’s a 19-year-old kid ready to go out, conquer the world, make it his own," Schwarz says. "And he is now reduced to someone we in the medical profession call a persistent vegetative state.”

He shows slide after slide of mangled cars and bleeding patients. But it’s the string of speakers with personal stories -- people with brain trauma and spinal cord injuries -- who illustrate the point of this class most vividly.

Kristi Finney comes in carrying an urn. It holds her son’s ashes. “Dustin was killed on August 12th at about 1 a.m.," she says. "He was 28 years old.”

Finney says her son was hit by an 18-year-old drunk driver that swung into a bike lane in Southeast Portland.

“Dustin went up onto the windshield and then he was thrown 175 feet from the impact," she recalls. "I was so angry. It didn’t have to happen and I was ... I couldn’t believe how often it was happening.I just didn’t know it was happening like that.”

That’s why Finney finds comfort in speaking to classes of high-risk drivers. And she thinks it works.

She says one time, a young man chased her out of the auditorium in tears saying, ”’Kristi, Kristi you know, I’m never going to do it again. I swear to God I am never going to do it again and I am going to tell all my friends and I’m not going to let them do it again either.’”

Trauma Nurses Talk Tough is the brainchild of a flight nurse named Joanne Fairchild. It came to her in 1986 when she helicoptered into a horrendous car accident involving five high school students. Three of them died.

“I really didn’t understand the violence of a crash until then," Fairchild says. "And I remember thinking, if kids knew that this is what happened if they knew that this is what their friends and families were gonna go through, they wouldn’t drive like this kid had.”

Fairchild’s program began as a high school safety belt class. Over time its branched into court ordered classes on high-risk driving, share the road, and DUI. Offenders do it to lower their fines or keep their insurance rates from skyrocketing.

Trauma Nurses Talk Tough has spread to other trauma centers in Oregon, Washington and a few other states. But replicating it hasn’t been easy. Fairchild says many hospitals are cash-strapped and training nurses for public speaking is difficult.

But her greatest frustration has been quantifying how much the program reduces risky driving.

"If I could go back and redo anything it would be to get research … sooner.”

She says researching behavioral changes is tricky because traffic school is voluntary and so the sample is not random. Even so, one unpublished federal study of one of her seatbelt classes showed a significant decrease in violations over the course of a year.

The message for today’s class, that "getting caught isn’t the problem...the problem is what happens when you’re not,” seems to have gotten through to Paula L’Heureux, Pat Gration, and Janice.

“I thought it was wonderful," says L’Heureux. "It was very informational and it just gave me a very big awareness of what could possibly happen and just all the really gruesome things that you don’t think about when you’re actually are driving a car.”

Gration adds, “I thought it was pretty good. I don’t think it needs to be eight hours long.”

“The guest speakers ... I mean it was pretty emotional, them coming in and talking about what happened to them or their loved ones,” says Janice.

The question is how long those lessons will last.

On the Web:

Trauma Nurses Talk Tough - Legacy Health