Public Safety

Student Journalists Confront Grim Realities of Unsafe Driving at Medical Examiner

About 30 high school journalists toured the Medical Examiner’s Office last week, forming unforgettable impressions that will become details in student newspapers and videos. The chilled chamber with dozens of sealed white bags. Accounts from staff investigators who wake parents in the night to notify them sons and daughters are dead.

These are hard things to see and hear. But the Medical Examiner’s Office hopes the stark experience convinces the student journalists—and their peers at San Marcos, Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista’s Rancho Buena Vista high schools—to consider the ultimate consequences of their decisions behind the wheel.

“The hardest part of my job is making death notifications,” said Julio Estrada, the Medical Examiner’s chief investigator. “By having a group of kids repeat a message to other kids, we have a chance to reduce these notifications and prevent young people’s deaths.”

The student journalists said the encounter with the Medical Examiner’s Office conveyed several serious messages.

“I learned that making good, true decisions can get you far in life, and decisions can either put you somewhere where you regret it, or they can put you somewhere you want to be,” said Sajad Ahmadi, a junior at San Marcos High. “(The tour) just changed my mood…it makes me know I can end up here.”

The tour came as part of a California Highway Patrol-headed pilot program called Steering Teens Straight. Throughout the year, students experience and report on the many consequences of dangerous driving practices such as speeding or driving drunk.

Sometimes I say at the table, ‘What was this person thinking?’
-Dr. Jonathan Lucas,
Chief Deputy Medical Examiner

At the Medical Examiner’s Office, the students also interviewed a panel of Medical Examiner staff, law enforcement representatives, a firefighter, and a young Fallbrook man who raced his friend down the road after football practice in fall 2008, when he was a popular high school senior. Jake Robinson said he hadn’t bothered to wear his seatbelt that day. The race ended in a crash, and Robinson became permanently paralyzed below the waist.

 Speaking from his wheelchair, the charismatic young man emphasized his belief that a heady sense of invincibility sweetens teenage life. But that feeling must be consciously checked at times, he said.

“It’s amazing, and we’re supposed to feel it. But there are these decisions we have the ability to take control of,” Robinson said. “I made the deliberate choice to feel invincible and not wear my seatbelt.”

Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas told the students he often reflects during an autopsy the person before him might easily still be alive.

“Sometimes I say at the table, ‘What was this person thinking?’” Dr. Lucas said. “He got in the car, he smells like alcohol. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can guess.”

Students asked the panelists about the aftermath of serious teenage crashes for people besides those injured or killed.

Related: Medical Examiner’s Annual Report – Preventable Deaths Set Grim Records

Sheriff’s Lt. J.T. Faulkner described the first time he had to tell a mother her child had died in a crash— knocking on a door at 2:30 a.m., a woman answering and knowing at once why he was there.     

“To this day I can see her face; she looked at me and just started crying,” Lt. Faulkner said.  “She said, ‘Where’s my son?’ I’ll never ever forget the look on her face; it’s like her face just started to melt.”  

Deaths that could have been avoided—the teens who couldn’t wait to send a text or who rode with someone who had been drinking—haunt some families forever, the panelists said. Family members and friends come to believe they could have prevented the death. Some replay the loss over and over in their minds forever.

“I have families who call on the death anniversary, even if it’s been several years,” Estrada said. “They still have questions; they ask me ‘Why?’…What can I tell them?”