April 13, 2014

Modesto crash victim adds sobering reality to annual efforts to keep teen drivers safe

With emotional stagings, dinner table lectures and grad night alternatives, communities work to keep teen drivers on the road to a bright future. One Modesto teen who survived a horrific crash, however, offers a sobering dose of reality.

Robert Penton laughed, his first deep belly rumble since the Dec. 7 crash that by all rights should have killed him. But the Johansen High School senior survived the crash in his beloved car, demolished beyond recognition, then underwent months of hospital care to make it home and mark that smiling milestone.

“I hadn’t heard his laugh in almost four months,” said mom Jodi McClure. “It was just cool.”

Every year, March through May, communities pull together to caution teen drivers to stay safe through proms, senior ditch days and graduations. “Every 15 Minutes” presentations strike emotional chords. Sober grad nights aim to keep the party off the roads and celebratory toasts zero-proof.

But perhaps the most sobering message of all comes from survivors. McClure thinks so, and said she hopes Robert will one day give talks about his experience as a way to help others and make some good out of something so bad.

“He could be an advocate who goes to schools and talk to teenagers about this. The way these kids drive right now ...” McClure said with a shake of her head.

Her son comes from a line of preachers, she said. “The Penton men have a knack for public speaking.”

Robert, to be clear, had no alcohol or drugs in his system when he crashed. Turlock police investigators said the car simply was going too fast for wet conditions on Christoffersen Parkway in north Turlock that morning. His green Acura Integra skidded off the road, hit a fence and landed upended against a tree on the California State University, Stanislaus, campus.

At a “Pray 4 Robbie” gathering organized by students at Johansen High a week later, Principal Nathan Shar said he understood that Robert, a JHS basketball player known for his ready laugh, was picking up two friends who called for a ride after a party. Those teens escaped with minor to moderate injuries. But more than 30 emergency responders spent an hour cutting Robert out of the destroyed Acura.

From there, he spent three weeks in intensive care. It took two weeks until he was stable enough to move by ambulance to a hospital preferred by his insurance, McClure said. He moved to a rehabilitation hospital in Vacaville just before Christmas and came home a little more than two weeks ago. A week after that, he laughed.

Like all of Robert’s milestones, McClure marked the April 2 moment in her full-size appointment book, a new addition since medical appointments and paperwork took over much of her family’s life. Robert’s injuries included traumatic brain injuries, a broken femur and a torn aorta, the body’s largest artery leading directly from the heart.

McClure credits God for Robert’s survival and calls upon her faith in chronicling his recovery for friends and family.

“You can cry about it, or you just do what you gotta do, that’s it,” she said with a weary smile. “I just have every belief he’s definitely going to make a huge recovery.”

Sitting in a recliner in his living room, Penton struggles to remember details and suffers chronic pain in his left leg, the one that broke in the crash. He sees only blurry forms, the aftermath of blood loss to the brain.

He uses a wheelchair, but is able to push up toward standing with his right leg and, using side rails and a therapist, shuffle along a short walkway. His arms are strong, though finger movements still take concentration. Each day, conversation becomes a little more natural and jokes more frequent, his mom reports.

Though graduating will not happen this year, his classmates want him to join in commencement. He will cross the stage, McClure said, even if he has to roll across it. But the career he dreamed of in the Marines or Air Force will take more of the divine intervention she believes has carried him this far.

“Life is completely different now,” Robert said. He remembers nothing about the crash and does not want to talk about it. Anger comes through, at the pain, at how hard everything has become, at a life that is completely different.

A moment’s inattention is all it takes to go from a life of dribbling balls down the basketball court to straining to walk. The California Highway Patrol hopes to impress that message on everyone this month, designating April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The campaign, joined by the Modesto Police Department and 200 other law enforcement agencies, targets drivers who text and otherwise use their cellphones while behind the wheel.

It’s a busy month for the CHP, which also participates in the “Every 15 Minutes” programs. There are eight to 12 such presentations every spring in Stanislaus County, said Modesto-area CHP spokesman Eric Parsons. Parsons was at the presentation at Central Catholic High School on March 27, a two-day event that starts with a staged scene of a deadly crash.

Two CHP officers, three local fire engines, a coroner’s van, two ambulances and a medical helicopter converged on the school’s football field for the event, with student actors representing the dead, the injured, the grieving and the guilty. CHP Officer Rich Kennell gave 16-year-old Nick Navarro a standard field sobriety test, which the sober Navarro had to work to fail.

Traffic safety grants and schools pay for the programs. The Central Catholic Interact Club pitched in to help put on the CCHS event. Parsons credits the program with helping cut the number of deaths from drunken driving accidents in half since it started.

“The statistic back in the 1990s was every 15 minutes someone was killed – four every hour. Now the statistic is every 30 minutes; that’s saving two lives an hour,” Parsons said. “I believe the program makes a difference.”

Over the past three years in Modesto, 218 drunken driving accidents in the city have killed 10 and injured 358, said Modesto police in announcing a sobriety checkpoint earlier this month.

Sober grad nights have also played a part, dedicated parents say. At Gregori High in north Modesto, Karyn Garcia helped organize a yard sale earlier this month to support fun activities for that pivotal night.

“During the months of April to June each year, more kids are killed in drunk driving accidents than any other time on the calendar,” she said, “and we do not want that to happen to any of our students.”

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