Laura Gonzalez planned to share her life with her husband Ricardo.
A drunk driver destroyed those plans in an instant.
Gonzalez has teamed up with the Texas Department of Transportation to launch a statewide campaign informing Texans about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Gonzalez is telling her story in the weeks leading up to the holiday weekend as part of TxDOT’s “Plan While You Can” campaign.
“I think the biggest motivator when you have such a negative thing happen to you is you try to find something positive,” Gonzalez said. “So any chance I have to share my story and how it affected to me, I do it. It’s like therapy for me. Each time is hard but it gets easier. I’m letting everyone know it can happen to anyone. I never thought it would happen to me but it did.”
On March 18, 2013 Ricardo Gonzalez was driving northbound on Loop 281 in Longview when a drunk driver swerved into his lane, causing a head-on collision. The drunk driver and Gonzalez, only 23 years old at the time, were killed immediately.
The “Plan While You Can” campaign urges drivers to take action to create a plan to get home safely if they plan on including alcohol in their Labor Day celebrations. A website created by TxDOT, SoberRides.org, provides free resources drivers can use to learn about options for getting home safely after drinking.
“I think the biggest thing is just the slogan of this campaign: plan while you can. It’s about having a plan in place before you ever take that first sip of alcohol,” Gonzalez said.
The campaign, which is already underway and will continue through the Labor Day weekend, is primarily focused on educating drivers and spreading the word about resources anyone can use to avoid intoxicated driving. Gonzalez hopes people will consider the wide variety of options available for finding a sober ride home to avoid a tragedy of their own.
“I just hope that they know this is a real life story with real life people. It’s not just something that you read about. It’s a horrific thing that can happen to anyone. In this day and age there’s no excuse not to have a sober ride with Uber, Lyft and ride-sharing services,” Gonzalez said.
She hopes drivers will think about the potential consequences of their actions before they ever get behind the wheel after drinking.
“Getting behind the wheel intoxicated doesn’t just affect you,” she said. “It affects everyone in the cars around you. It can affect not just your own life but the lives of other people’s husbands, children and wives.”
Kathi White, TxDOT public information officer for the Tyler district, is working alongside Gonzalez to spread the word about the “Plan While You Can” campaign.
White said progress is being made towards the goal of reducing drunk driving over the Labor Day holiday but there is still a long way to go.
“Texas did experience a 23 percent decease in alcohol-related crashes over the 2017 Labor Day weekend but there were still 264 alcohol-related crashes that claimed 14 lives and 19 people sustained serious injuries,” White said. “The Labor Day weekend is considered to last from 6 p.m. Friday, August 31 to 11:59 p.m. September 1. The statistics are based on those hours.”
White added, in the Tyler TxDOT district in 2017, there were 720 alcohol-related crashes resulting in 43 fatalities and 85 serious injuries.
White said the upcoming holiday provided a good opportunity for additional outreach.
“We are focusing this campaign at this time around Labor Day. It’s the one downtime for people who have been enjoying a great summer, hopefully, and it’s the last big weekend until the end of fall. It’s a great time to remind them of the dangers of drinking and driving,” White said.
While the “Plan While You Can” campaign is centered on the holiday, White said TxDOT makes efforts to teach people safe alternatives to drinking and driving on an ongoing basis.
“It is something that we do focus on throughout the year. We’re going to be doing a lot of outreach and getting people to plan. There’s no reason not to have a plan in place when you’re going to drink. There’s no excuse for getting behind the wheel after drinking.”
Speaking on behalf of TxDOT, White said the organization’s goal in partnering with Gonzalez was to spare others the pain of losing a loved one in a preventable car crash.
“We’re hoping that by partnering with her and sharing her story, that everyone who drives and that anybody who hears her story will take it to heart and know they don’t have to go down that same road or send some other family down that same road with a tragic loss that could have been prevented,” White said.
White added the Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement have already stepped up their patrols and will continue to have an enhanced presence in East Texas throughout the Labor Day weekend in an effort to catch and arrest drunk drivers.
A conviction for drunk driving in Texas can lead to $17,000 in costs, jail time and job loss, among a variety of other negative consequences.
The “Plan While You Can” campaign will also feature a 12-city tour, kicking off on August 23. Cities will be visited by a TxDOT truck equipped with a video screen allowing visitors to play a virtual game of dodgeball. As the game progresses, virtual “drinks” will be added to the player’s game character and, as the alcohol level increases, the player’s avatar will react more slowly to the player’s commands. The goal of the game is to give players a visual representation of the effects alcohol can have on coordination and reaction times.
The truck will make stops in Tyler and Longview, including at the Gregg County Fair and Expo on September 9.