Who better than the mother of a girl who was killed by a drunk driver to speak about the tragic outcome of drinking and driving? How about the drunk driver himself?
Venice High School students heard from both Friday.
Renee Napier, whose daughter Meagan was killed in 2002, and Eric Smallridge, whose drunk driving caused the crash that killed her and a friend, spoke at VHS about the dangers of drunk driving.
First, students heard from Sgt. Brian Woodring, with the DUI unit of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. He said DUI is a “unique crime because it is 100 percent preventable.” He said each of his five trained deputies has arrested more than 100 DUI operators this year. Together, the arrests total about 700.
“It is preventable because it’s based on one simple fact: decisions,” Woodring said. “If you make a decision to drink alcohol and get behind the wheel of your vehicle, you’ll experience the consequences … which may be in your rear-view mirror.”
Then it was time for the survivors of the crash to tell their stories.
“I hope you want to hear what I have to say, and I hope your life will be touched in a positive way,” Napier said.
Meagan Napier grew up in Pensacola, Fla. She was a sophomore in college in Tallahassee on May 11, 2002 — Mother’s Day — when at about 2:30 a.m., the car in which she and her best friend, Lisa Dickson, were riding was hit from behind by Smallridge, who was driving a Jeep Explorer. The car was forced off the road and ended up wrapped around a tree.
“This was the darkest moment of my life,” Napier said. “I did not want to live, although I wasn’t suicidal. I had three other children who were grown but still needed a mother. There were only two things that brought me peace: One, she died instantly, and two, they died together.”
Napier recounted her last phone call with her daughter, and that she told Meagan she loved her.
“I didn’t know that would be the last time I would talk with her,” she said. “But the first thing you do when you lose a loved one is think back to the last time you saw them and talked with them.
“That’s why it’s important to back off when there’s a disagreement. Do your best to end a conversation as positively as you can.”
Napier said theirs is a normal family. Meagan had a twin sister, Carmen; another sister, Michelle; and a brother, Alan.
“They are good people,” she said, “but we’re not perfect.”
There was some fighting and a lot of love. She told students to rely on their family members.
Napier showed a video about her daughter’s accident and told the students to plan what to do when partying with friends. While it is better not to drink alcohol, if you do, plan what to do about it, she said.
She said they should have their parents look at the video, which is online (www.duipromise.com), and ask them if they will pick them up if they’re too drunk to drive.
“I believe 100 percent will say, ‘Let me be the first one you call,’” Napier said. “You may pick someone to be a designated driver or just not drink at all.”
Napier, 54, has never had a drink and said she has still always had a good time partying with friends. Students shouldn’t believe advertising that says the only way to have fun is by drinking.
Napier stressed the importance of not drinking, taking drugs, texting or doing anything in a car that impairs driving. She also told students to not be a passenger of someone who drinks and drives.
“Know how valuable you are,” she said.
Before introducing Smallridge, who was sentenced to 22 years for the DUI manslaughter for killing Meagan and Lisa, Napier said “this is a story of forgiveness.”
At Smallridge’s trial, he sobbed and expressed sorrow for what he had done. He was a good student, an Eagle Scout and a college graduate. He made a bad decision, he said, when he got behind the wheel.
“I never thought I would be the guy who took someone’s life,” he said.
He said he thought if he ever got arrested for drinking and driving, the worst punishment he’d get would be getting grounded.
“I want to open your eyes to the true consequences, the worst-case scenario,” Smallridge, 25, said. “I want you to do things responsibly. You may think you can get drunk, smoke a little weed, but the truth is, you can’t impose your life on others.”
He told the students to not react to peer pressure, because the worst pressure is what they put on themselves to fit in with others.
“Value your life,” Smallridge said. “Respect yourself and others. When you drink, you’re not respecting life. Drinking and taking drugs is selfish.”
Forgiveness came about a few years after Smallridge’s sentencing. He had been sentenced to 22 years — 11 years for each girl. At first, Renee and her family felt that justice had been done, but she said she didn’t feel right about it. She said she knew Eric was a good guy and that his family was suffering, having to visit the son they loved in jail. The girls would not be coming back no matter how long he served.
“No one won,” Napier said.
So in August 2006, the Napier family went to court and asked the judge to reduce his sentence. It was cut to 11 years, and now he is in a work-release program. He is allowed to accompany Napier to put on these talks in high schools.
“By the grace of God, I’ll get out in November,” Smallridge said. He plans to continue working for Goodwill Industries in the St. Petersburg area refurbishing computers.
When Grammy-nominated Christian music artist Matthew West learned of Napier’s story, he wrote the song “Forgiveness,” which he is playing on his Into the Light Tour this weekend in Bradenton, Clearwater and Lakeland. Napier met West in The JoyFM music studio in Sarasota.
Friday’s talk ended with a slide show of photos of Smallridge and Meagan from childhood to young adults, accompanied by the song “The Reason,” which repeats the refrain, “I never meant to hurt you.”
Many students gave Napier a hug after the program and some stopped and talked to Smallridge. Students were invited into the parking lot to view the car in which Meagan and Lisa lost their lives.
Student Kaily Leite said the program was “touching.” Zack Kelly said he learned he should “make good decisions.”