By Jonathan Weaver
Vernon Hilyer doesn’t mourn over his son’s death – he uses it as motivation.
Then-21-year-old son Brandon – a 2005 Clarion High School graduate – drove with a .253 blood alcohol level September 9, 2008 and died from a broken neck the next morning in a single-vehicle accident.
And yet, Vernon started spreading his message “My Life Sentence” in regional schools as ‘Brandon’s Dad’ that April. Hilyer said Brandon crashed his car in January 2008 after drinking as well and knew somebody was going to get hurt.
“I lived it for so long, I expected that day to come. Honestly, it was like a burden lifted off of my shoulders,” Hilyer said. “I used to lie awake and think ‘Who’s he going to kill tonight?’
Friday, Hilyer delivered his message to West Shamokin High School students during the third- annual “Safe Driving Awareness Day.”
Students Against Destructive Decisions Senior President Chris Shink said the student body has already been impacted by the sudden death of former student Brieyonah Painter, 18. Painter died as a passenger in a motor vehicle crash in South Bend Township April 16.
“Lately, they’re getting more personal with the events that have happened in our communities,” Shink said. “It’s making more of an impact locally – people are finally starting to wrap their heads around what we try to do.”
SADD Vice-President Senior Vice-President Charlene Patterson also recalled the deaths of 20 year-old Sean Titus, 19 year-old Zane McMillen, and 18 year-old Cody Brink Douglas, all of the Kittanning area, in an Indiana County crash May 5, and that of Justin Boyer approximately five years ago.
Awareness Coordinator Dave Powers was one of the last people to see Painter alive at a local restaurant April 16 and agreed that the incident “hit home” with students. Students got emotional during Hilyer’s presentation, and Powers knew the day would make an impact on future driving decisions.
“We’re leaving a positive impression on a lot of kids. We’re not going to get everybody, but if we get through to one, two (students), it’s making a difference.
“And I feel that we’ve done that.”
Powers taught West Shamokin teens to drive for 12 years and said the event was also purposely scheduled a week before the school prom – held Friday at the Indiana Country Club.
Even though the event is about a half-hour away, students will drive in a caravan and no alcohol will be sold or permitted that evening.
“This was our biggest year, and one of our best years I think,” Powers said.
In addition to the presentation, students were able to drive the Team DUI driving simulator, listen to words from Kiski Township Police and become more aware of PennDOT plow trucks by climbing behind the wheel.
District 10 Manager Andy Firment said his lesson impacted both students and teachers.
“As a department, we wanted to stress the importance of attention to work zones and also to help the students understand the trucks and the size, what the trucks do as far as winter goes. In addition to that, we allowed the students to actually sit in the truck so they get to see what our operator sees on a daily basis through the windshield of that truck, Firment said.
“When students approach these larger vehicles, they’re going to have an idea ‘Hey, this truck driver’s not going to be able to see me. If he’s not able to see me, I have to pay special attention.”
Sophomore Ryan Barnett of Dayton was driving about 75 miles per hour along a rural road during the driving simulation and hit a jogging pedestrian.
He doesn’t want to make that mistake again – especially less than a month from applying for his driving permit.
If he convinces his mother to allow him to take the test that weekend, he also hopes to be able to drive to a Pittsburgh Pirates home baseball game.