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Newsmaker Kristen Lauteri / She turns accident into war on DWI

Monday, September 18, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The smell of death is still fresh in Kristen Lauteri's memory.

At 17, she thinks about the crash every day, about how the out-of-control driver barreled down Route 201 in the wrong lane of traffic, her car hurtling like a bullet at Lauteri and four other students from Monessen High School.

 
  Kristen Lauteri (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Rescue crews sorted through the wreckage and found that the teen-agers were lucky to be alive. The driver who hurt them, 73-year-old Veronica Nemoseck of Rostraver, was dead.

Later, police determined that Nemoseck's blood-alcohol level was 0.23 -- more than double the limit for a driver in Pennsylvania to be considered drunk.

The crash, on Aug. 12, 1999, in Rostraver, changed countless lives, including Lauteri's. Not yet old enough to vote and still undecided about which college to attend, she has become a bulldog on the crime of drunken driving.

After the shock wore off and the two most seriously injured of her friends returned to school from hospitals, Lauteri put her outrage on paper. She wrote an essay that was powerful enough to win her a place at the National Youth Summit to Prevent Underage Drinking.

 
    Kristen Lauteri

Date of birth: March 1, 1983
Place of birth: Pittsburgh
Lives in: Monessen
In the news: She is a Pennsylvania delegate to MADD's National Youth Summit to Prevent Underage Drinking. Kristen was selected after writing a personal essay, inspired by a horrific car crash. She and four Monessen High schoolmates were injured by a drunken driver. The woman who caused the crash was killed.
Quote: "Because I was affected firsthand, I wanted to let everybody know how dangerous drinking and driving can be."
Education: Senior at Monessen High School.
Family: Parents Jim and Kathy; brother, David, 13.

 
 

The conference, sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 4 in Washington, D.C. It will include one young person from every congressional district.

"I think about drinking and driving a lot, and how it affected our whole community," Lauteri said.

In many ways, she felt lucky. Her injuries -- mostly bruises -- were among the slightest of the five students, who were riding in two cars. Nemoseck's car collided first with the vehicle carrying Lauteri and a passenger. Then it plowed ahead and smashed into the second car with the other three students.

The teen-agers had spent the evening having fun at Bill's Golf Range. In a flash, the wrong-way driver ended their summer and took away their innocence.

Two of the students -- Ricky Tyburski and C.J. Salvino -- required extensive hospital care.

Tyburski, who suffered broken bones in his face, missed a month of school. Eventually, he bounced back, making the varsity basketball and golf teams.

Salvino has had a tougher time. He slipped into a coma with a brain injury and missed a semester of high school. When he returned, he temporarily needed an adult to help him navigate through the day. He's doing better now, though his rehabilitation continues.

The crash so galvanized Monessen that Salvino is getting assistance with his physical therapy from the school athletic trainer, said Randall Marino, principal of Monessen's middle and high schools.

With only about 300 students in its high school, Monessen cannot help but feel the fallout from the crash.

"Because we're such a small school, everybody knows everybody," Marino said. "It's a personalized situation, so a lot of students and people in the community took part in fund raising for the kids" to help cover medical bills.

Then Lauteri, perhaps more than anyone, seized on drunken driving as a plague that her generation should commit to stopping. Marino said she is more organized than most adults and as tenacious as anybody in town.

Lauteri has added her voice to the work that MADD began in a different era -- when drunken driving was often tolerated as typical behavior, or was treated lightly by judges.

MADD turned 20 years old this month. The organization was founded by Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunken driver on May 5, 1980, in Fair Oaks, Calif.

Lightner went from sad to outraged when she learned that her daughter's killer stood accused in three other drunken-driving cases, yet had continued to get behind the wheel. Under Lightner, MADD swelled to a national movement that lobbied successfully to raise the legal U.S. drinking age from 18 to 21.

Penalties for drunken driving became more severe, but Lauteri is not sure society at large takes the problem seriously enough. She believes repeat offenders should lose the privilege of driving, saying "We should take away their keys."

An honor student, secretary of the senior class and a varsity softball player, Lauteri sees the MADD youth summit as a chance to spread word of tragedies such as the one that has affected Monessen.

"This opened my eyes," she said. "I want drinking and driving stopped."



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