Car crash survivor uses his story to reach teens

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The federal STAND UP Act would create a three-step licensing process with limitations on a new driver lasting until at least age 18.

Those restrictions include:

o A learner's permit issued at age 16, not 15.

o Unsupervised nighttime driving would be barred until full licensure at 18.

o Driving while using a cell phone -- hands-free or not -- would be prohibited until 18.

o Passengers would be restricted until 18.

Washington is already ahead of the pack when it comes to graduated driver's licensing, but Tyler Presnell and others are determined to advance it, seeing the STAND UP Act as the ticket to making the process more stringent.

"The permit should start at 16," said Presnell, seriously injured when a newly-licensed driver lost control and crashed into a telephone pole 11 years ago. "Teenagers shouldn't be given a full license at 16."

Requirements for teen drivers already on the books in Washington include possessing a learner's permit for at least six months, completing a traffic safety course and documenting 50 hours behind the wheel.

Newly-licensed drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for one year; restricted to driving with people younger than 20 to just family members for six months and to fewer than three non-family passengers younger than 20 for the next six months; and disallowed from talking on cell phones for a year, even with a hands-free device.

"We're starting from a pretty good base in those states," Bill Vainisi, Allstate's vice president of government and industry relations, said of Washington and Oregon.

-- Bob Albrecht

In the back of the classroom, Tyler Presnell rhythmically swayed from one side to the other and back again. He was steeling himself against his nerves, preparing to deliver a presentation he’d given at least 100 times before.

For nearly a year, Presnell has been speaking to classes at Big John’s Driving School, 14020 N.E. Fourth Plain Road in Vancouver. But on this afternoon, minutes before an address another mind might find as routine as tying a pair of shoes, he was anxious.

“I’ve done this numerous times, but I never remember them,” Presnell said on June 30. “It’s different every time.”

One speech at a time, Presnell puts his scarred body and damaged mind on display, hoping he can use his gift to spur essential change within the lives of teenage drivers and reform deeply-rooted driving policies.

Life-changing wreck

Presnell’s trials can be measured in numbers: one violent, life-altering car wreck that led to two stints on life support, six weeks in a coma and more than 21 surgeries that left his body marked by 13 feet of scars.

Surviving has turned him into a passionate preacher to teens.

“Someone dies in a car accident every 12 minutes,” Presnell, 25, told his congregation at Big John’s. “Someone gets a serious brain injury — way beyond repair — every 15 seconds.

“That statistic rips my gut open.”

The crash that separated Presnell’s first 14 years from the rest of his life happened on a rainy day in November 1999. He was in the backseat of a friend’s car when the freshly licensed driver lost control. Presnell’s door hit a telephone pole at 70 mph.

The 16-year-old driver had been trying to catch air as he drove over the so-called “roller coaster hills” near Skyview High School when he instead lost control, smashed into the pole and redirected Presnell’s life straight to the emergency room. Presnell spent the next six weeks in a coma, and the next 18 months as a self-described “drooling, funny-walking, diaper-wearing retard.” His appearance made high school difficult, but Presnell pressed on, eventually walking across the stage to receive his diploma from Skyview.

His struggles now are less evident. But the accident’s side effects remain.

He likens his bouts with memory loss to Drew Barrymore’s character in the comedy “50 First Dates.”

“Every day it takes about 20 minutes to remember what I did the day before,” he said.

Here’s a hint, Tyler: You shared your story with someone. Anyone.

Gathering an audience

Standing at the edge of Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland in early June, Presnell was wedged between a TV camera and teens dressed in shirts numbered 1 to 11. Under the cover of dark clouds in not-quite-rainy but also not-quite-dry air, he started telling his story to the camera crew and passersby making their way to lunch or coffee.

He was speaking on behalf of the Allstate Insurance Co.-sponsored Save 11 campaign, a nationwide drive aimed at drumming up support for the STAND UP Act, federal graduated licensing legislation currently stacked in the congressional queue.

As he spoke, initially, he was telling the story of his crash to no one in particular.

“Within 30 seconds of me talking — I must have said the right things — a crowd started to form,” Presnell said.

By the end of the half-hour address, nearly 100 people had clumped together to listen to Presnell. As he scanned the crowd, he spotted his mother, Dianne Jenks, standing with his twin brother, Kyle, and sister, Aly. It was the first time since he endeavored to make a career out of telling his story that his family had joined his audience.

“I can’t even describe what seeing their smiles meant to me,” Presnell recalled of that day. “I didn’t feel hopeless at that point.”

Hopelessness is a feeling he fights often.

The 9-to-5 jobs that typify “normal” haven’t worked out for Presnell.

With speaking, he knows now that he’s found his calling; however, a glance ahead reveals a winding uphill climb.

“I’m going to reach the mass public,” Presnell said.

‘Help him out’

As Presnell readied himself in the back of a classroom adorned with posters warning against the dangers of driving recklessly, Bob Dalton, the school’s owner, offered this from the front: “Tyler is going to forget what he’s saying — help him out.”

The federal STAND UP Act would create a three-step licensing process with limitations on a new driver lasting until at least age 18.

Those restrictions include:

o A learner’s permit issued at age 16, not 15.

o Unsupervised nighttime driving would be barred until full licensure at 18.

o Driving while using a cell phone — hands-free or not — would be prohibited until 18.

o Passengers would be restricted until 18.

Washington is already ahead of the pack when it comes to graduated driver’s licensing, but Tyler Presnell and others are determined to advance it, seeing the STAND UP Act as the ticket to making the process more stringent.

“The permit should start at 16,” said Presnell, seriously injured when a newly-licensed driver lost control and crashed into a telephone pole 11 years ago. “Teenagers shouldn’t be given a full license at 16.”

Requirements for teen drivers already on the books in Washington include possessing a learner’s permit for at least six months, completing a traffic safety course and documenting 50 hours behind the wheel.

Newly-licensed drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for one year; restricted to driving with people younger than 20 to just family members for six months and to fewer than three non-family passengers younger than 20 for the next six months; and disallowed from talking on cell phones for a year, even with a hands-free device.

“We’re starting from a pretty good base in those states,” Bill Vainisi, Allstate’s vice president of government and industry relations, said of Washington and Oregon.

— Bob Albrecht

Forty-five students in the class did just that as Presnell lost track of his thoughts at least seven times during a 90-minute, free-flowing conversation.

“Sorry, what was I talking about?” Presnell would ask.

“The crash,” students rang out in unison.

He passed out pictures not of the accident, but its results: A comatose Presnell dressed in a hospital gown lying in a hospital bed with tubes running in all directions.

Speak up when you’re scared, he told the students. He was terrified as the car tore over the hills, the speedometer approaching 100 mph. He didn’t say anything.

“The only reason you guys die in car accidents is because you don’t know what 2,000 pounds of metal can do,” he told the students.

A crash, Presnell said, “will destroy your life.”

During a break in the class, Dalton whispered that students who normally would seize on the opportunity to rush to a nearby convenience store for a snack instead crowd around Presnell.

“He reaches these kids where we can’t,” Dalton said. “I’m a popular instructor, but I can’t touch him. They just get mesmerized by him.”

The STAND UP Act

What if the STAND UP Act and a key provision that would prevent teens from gaining a full, unrestricted driver’s license until 18 had existed 11 years ago?

Presnell’s at peace with the hand he’s been dealt; nonetheless, he can’t help wonder how things might be different if the driver piloting the car on Nov. 21, 1999, had been more seasoned.

“The (driver’s) permit should start at 16,” Presnell said. “Teenagers shouldn’t be given a full license at 16.”

That belief is why he’s stumping for federal legislation designed to better prepare teens to drive on their own. The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STAND UP) Act would restrict night driving during beginning and intermediate licensing stages, prohibit the use of cell phones and limit the number and type of passengers allowed in the vehicle.

Observers predict federal legislation will pass sometime in the fall, said Bill Vainisi, Allstate’s vice president of government and industry relations. “Our biggest opponent here is the agenda,” he added. “It’s not substance — it’s just that Congress is so busy.”

Dalton said the reforms hold more value in other states than they do in Washington, where licensing laws are already “pretty stiff.” He’d like, though, to see Washington parents required to sign a document vouching for their child’s completion of the state-mandated 50 behind-the-wheel hours.

“Wouldn’t it be great if Tyler could talk at all the schools?” he said, delivered as more statement than question.

That’s nearing fruition.

Excitement flowed from Presnell on July 15, outside the home of his mother, having recently learned about an opportunity to speak to a dozen high schools in Kern County, Calif., during National Teen Safety Week in October.

The reasons behind Presnell’s bid to turn telling his story into his livelihood are twofold: He can’t do anything else, having lost every job he’s ever had for reasons relating to his brain injury, and he has a yearning to use his experiences to make a difference.

Of his speaking engagements, he said, “If you’ve lived it, people will listen. These young kids — they know Tyler, they can see it. He’s not just some person getting paid to tell kids to drive safe.”

He’s used a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmnV-4ldVlM) published in partnership with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to spread his message. Jenks said she recently watched the video, which includes images of her son relearning to walk with the help of nurses, and the pit in her stomach that grew at the time of the crash returned.

“I pretty much thought he wasn’t going to make it,” Jenks said.

Family brought together

Presnell is temporarily living in the Fruit Valley area home of Jenks and his stepfather, Shawn Jenks. One morning, as she looked at her son seated in a chair at the edge of the garage, Jenks shook her head and said, “Time really does heal.”

She said the crash has brought her family closer together. Also in the car when it smashed into the telephone pole at high impact were Presnell’s twin brother, Kyle, and younger sister, Aly.

Kyle Presnell was recently discharged from military service that included a tour through Iraq. He’s finalizing arrangements to work for the U.S. Embassy in Romania.

Aly Presnell, who sat beside Presnell in the backseat of the out-of-control car, is studying business administration at Washington State University.

“If that accident didn’t happen, who knows how our life would have turned out?” Dianne Jenks said. “They are all so close.”

Presnell’s would have been wholly different, but he’s not complaining.

He writes in a journal daily and has plenty of material for the book he’s dreamed of writing: “It would be mandatory reading for teens throughout the country,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s just relishing his gift.

“I used to be angry and ask why God did this to me,” Presnell said. “Now I ask why he’s blessed me with this.”

Bob Albrecht: 360-735-4522 or bob.albrecht@columbian.com.