By Joyce Coronel
It’s been 20 years, but tears still roll down Sonya Brinton’s cheeks as she recalls what happened to her family on that fateful night during the summer of 1996.
Wrangler News caught up with Brinton just as Tempe police officers were setting up a mock drunken-driving scenario inside the football arena at Marcos de Niza High School.
In the midst of prom and graduation season, school administrators and police wanted students to understand how one poor choice could result in a devastating impact—an impact like the one that left Brinton’s life forever changed.
At the time, she was the mother of two girls, 5-year-old April and 19-month-old Rachel.
“I was at work,” Brinton said. “They had spent the day together for Father’s Day and I got a phone call from my neighbor because the police department was trying to find me.”
That’s because the vehicle Brinton’s husband and daughters were riding in was hit by a drunken driver. Her husband was killed and the two girls were taken by helicopter to Children’s Hospital, April with a laceration to her forehead, Rachel with a far more serious injury.
“The first person I saw was April. She was crying for her daddy and he was nowhere around. To make her happy, I told her he was at the adult hospital,” Brinton said as she brushed away tears.
Rachel, she was told, was upstairs at the hospital. “I thought she was just being checked out for observation,” Brinton recounted. Instead, the toddler was in the pediatric intensive-care unit with a traumatic brain injury.
Today Rachel is 21 but has the mind of an 8- or 10-year-old child. She’s unable to use her left arm.
“She is disabled and will be for the rest of her life,” Brinton managed through tears, explaining that after the accident, she became Rachel’s full-time caregiver, attending school with her for fear that others wouldn’t know how to manage her care.
A recent Marcos de Niza all-school assembly was the 12th appearance Brinton made during April alone. No matter how many times the program specialist with Mothers Against Drunk Driving tells her story, the pain cuts deeply. Her hope is that she can help prevent another family from experiencing the loss she has endured.
“It’s important for them to know their bad choices can lead to something that can devastate families’ lives,” Brinton said. “Not only that, but physically it can harm them, just the alcohol in general. We are trying to get them to understand that the brain’s not developed until they’re 25. And just to make better choices.”
Sarah Tolar, vice principal for activities at Marcos de Niza, agreed.
“We feel like it’s really important for the kids to understand that there are consequences to choices they make, especially this time of year,” Tolar said. “It’s hard for them to see down the road the impact that drinking can have.”
The mock DUI accident is one way to bring that to life, she said, standing in front of the football field where two cars, part of the scenario, were parked. Students from the school’s acting class would portray victims, passengers and an impaired driver.
One of the cars was badly damaged, its windshield blown out. A young woman lay across the hood, posing as the victim who was killed.
Even for a seasoned reporter, it was a chilling sight.
“This is really jarring and really emotional but that’s what we need. We need for them to see something like this so they may think twice,” Tolar said.
Moments into the recreation, students sitting in the bleachers heard the breathless call of the victim to 9-1-1, reporting an accident at Guadalupe and Lakeshore, the intersection adjacent to the school. Police officers on motorcycles, followed by a fire truck, roared into the stadium.
One of the officers conducted a field sobriety test on the driver. The simulation culminated with a rescue helicopter landing on the football field.
Sarah Higginbotham, one of the student actresses who participated in the recreation of the accident scene, said she had friends and family members whose lives had been touched by drunken driving. “From the moment I woke up this morning, thinking about it, I had tears in my eyes. I think it’s definitely been very impactful for me and I know for sure it will be impactful to the students,” Higginbotham said.
Celeste Gonzalez, a sophomore, said she found the assembly extremely helpful because it showed how life can change in a matter of seconds. Therefore, she added, “If you know that someone is impaired, find someone responsible to be behind the wheel because you might have just saved lives, including yours.”
Irene Cervantes, a senior, said she learned that “one decision can change your life” and that “no matter what, you shouldn’t drive at all if you’ve had anything to drink.”
Molly Enright, public information officer for the Tempe police, noted that the Arizona DUI statute is written in such a way that “impairment to the slightest degree” can lead to an arrest for driving under the influence.
That means even if a driver’s blood alcohol is less than .08, he or she can be cited for DUI.
“You’ve heard ‘don’t drink and drive,’ but really it’s ‘don’t drink anything and drive,’” Enright said. Patrol officers will pull over an erratic driver and are trained to conduct a nystagmus field sobriety test, which evaluates eye movements.
Every year, Enright said, former students from area high schools tell officers that the DUI simulation they were exposed to came to mind when they had a choice to make.
“They tell the officers and the detectives how powerful it was and that it impacted their decision-making,” Enright said.
Hopefully enough so to keep others from experiencing the same kind of life-altering tragedy of people like the Brintons.