This CHP officer remembers when she was hit head on by a drunken driver

Traci Gallian was in the white vehicle 23 years ago when it was struck by a drunken driver in Morro Bay. Rescuers work to get her out. Gallian survived the crash and went on to to become a CHP officer. The DUI driver died at the scene.
Traci Gallian was in the white vehicle 23 years ago when it was struck by a drunken driver in Morro Bay. Rescuers work to get her out. Gallian survived the crash and went on to to become a CHP officer. The DUI driver died at the scene. Courtesy of Traci Gallian

Twenty-three years ago my life changed in an instant. As I drove northbound on Highway 1 in Morro Bay on Dec. 16, 1994, I was hit head-on by a drunken driver. Fortunately for me, I am alive today to speak about the driving-under-the-influence collision and to express my feelings as a survivor and as a CHP officer.

I have often wondered why I can’t move on from my collision and try and forget about the day it happened. The drunken driver in my collision died at the scene that night, and I was never able to hear why he chose to drive impaired. I was angry for 23 years until I met Kaitlin, who is an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. I would like to share Kaitlin’s story with all of you and hope that in her remorse some of you will feel the way I do about recovery and forgiveness:

“One decision, one night I forever changed the lives of five teenagers because of my careless, thoughtless, foolish decision to drink and drive. My name is Kaitlin Bennett, and I am serving a prison sentence for eight years at CCWF. On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, I took the keys from my friend who stumbled out of the bar. Little did I realize at the time, I had no business driving either, but I chose to get behind the wheel and drive. Speeding and running a red light, I crashed into a vehicle with such force a few of the passengers were ejected and were lying in the roadway, broken and helpless. Where the impact occurred, the severely injured victims were crushed and sustained major injuries. Concussions, contusions, scared and screaming for help, this is the reality of what I have done. I did this. I caused this damage. I hurt these people and forever changed their lives and their families.

“The shock and horror of knowing I not only hurt another human being but I hurt someone else’s children brought me crashing down to a reality I wasn’t able to comprehend. I couldn’t figure out how to fix or make everything right again. How could I? I am the monster from which I was trying to protect my own children. “I’m sorry” doesn’t change anything and doesn’t undo the damage. The regret consumed me. At one point I wanted to die from the shame, guilt, and pain that I felt. I told myself I deserved every bit of pain I was feeling. To this day I wake up covered in sweat and panic from night terrors, and all I remember is the sound of crashing metal, breaking glass, and the blood-curdling screams for help. I came to a conclusion a long time ago I won’t ever wake up without thinking about that night. It happened, and it has forever changed my life.

“I am serving a prison sentence, but the real change is in my heart. The real prison sentence is in my head. I have to accept I can never change the pain I caused and can never go back in time to make the decision not to drink and drive. By accepting this, I have based any and all of my decisions on never inflicting pain to anyone else again. Helping the next person, sharing my story, and being the example is the only thing that lightens the shame and guilt that consumes me and has become the driving force in my life.

“Three years into my sentence, I was given the opportunity to be a first responder at CCWF. I am one of 10 firefighters who respond to motor vehicle collisions, structure fires, vehicle fires, vegetation fires and medical aid calls within Madera County. I have seen firsthand the destruction drunken driving causes. Cutting people out of vehicles with the Jaws of Life, loading them into helicopters and ambulances has brought more reality to the terrible crime I committed of drinking and driving. I have cleaned up many intersections and highways from the destruction left behind by the tragedies, which could have been prevented.

“Shortly after becoming a member of the fire department, I was asked if I would be willing to share my story with high school students in the Every 15 Minutes program. I accepted without hesitation. I had no idea what I was getting myself involved in, but I knew it was exactly where I was supposed to be. Every time I tell my story to the students, I hope to help just one person and hopefully stop people from making the same decision I made. It has been my hope to create something positive out of the disaster I made of my own life. I know my words of “I’m sorry” will never mean anything until I put them into action. I hope by sharing my life with you, this brings more awareness to how serious drinking and driving really is.

“Young, old, male, female, rich, or poor, drinking and driving does not discriminate. All it takes is one drink and the decision to get behind the wheel and drive to ruin your life or the lives of others. Please don’t make the same mistake I did.”

After reading Kaitlyn’s story, you are probably asking, how do I get involved and help the victims/survivors of DUI? On Sept. 9, the Walk Like MADD event will be held at Fresno State; starting line is behind the Satellite Student Union, with the walk starting at 9 a.m.. The CHP, as well as other local law enforcement agencies, will be in attendance. You can sign up through the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website at www.walklikemadd.org and join the CHP in our walk to help bring awareness and end impaired driving. Come join us and be a part of this great event and give your heart and your energy to those who have been affected by DUI. Listen to their stories, walk beside them, and try to understand the pain they feel. With every step taken and each dollar raised, walkers are supporting MADD’s lifesaving mission to keep our families and communities safe.

Together, we can eliminate impaired driving!

Officer Traci Gallian can be reached at tgallian@chp.ca.gov. For more from the CHP Central Division, go to the division’s Facebook page.