By: Jen Russon
After losing his daughter Marisa in a wrong way crash over five years ago, Gary Catronio has been a fierce advocate for safe driving.
Catronio spends time visiting various schools around Broward County, sharing her story, and on Friday, he returned to Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs.
Speaking with eighth-grade students on the cusp of being licensed drivers themselves, Catronio spoke about the dangers of driving under the influence as well as distracted driving. Also, what to do if a wrong way alert pops up on the highway.
“If you see a flashing sign that says there’s a wrong-way driver on the road, you need to exit or pull over immediately – it’s serious. It’s real,” he warned.
Founded eighteen months after the crash, Catonio founded Marisa’s Way, a nonprofit organization. Since then, he has worked with state legislators and the Department of Transportation to place flashing wrong-way signs and alert systems on the Sawgrass Expressway – the scene of his daughter and her best friend Kaitlyn Ferrante’s death almost nearly six years ago. Since its inception, Marisa’s Way has prevented 67 out of 68 wrong-way drivers before an accident could occur.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, wrong-way crashes result in 300 to 400 people killed each year on average in the US, representing approximately one percent of the total number of traffic-related fatalities that occur annually. While this is a small percentage overall, because wrong-way crashes involve head-on or opposite-direction sideswipe crashes at high speeds, they tend to be relatively more severe than other types of accidents.
The still-grieving father asked audience members why a person might enter a highway as a wrong-way driver, tossing tiny footballs at those who gave correct answers. After Catronio studied how drunk drivers perceive the road ahead, favoring the fast lane, he advised students to “stay right at night.”
He also asked students to stand up if they had ever ridden in a car with either someone under the influence, texting, fighting with someone in the back seat, or even doing something as seemingly harmless as eating.
“Sit down if you promise you’ll never ride with an impaired person or drive with one again,” he said.
Most people sit down at that point; however, once, a teenage boy remained standing.
“The boy came up to me when my presentation was over and said, ‘Sir, I wasn’t trying to be smart. It’s just that there’s no way I can visit my mom anymore if my drunk dad doesn’t drive me,” Catronio recalled.
He assured the student he never had to do that again – he could call Marisa’s Way for a safe ride and offered the same to everyone in the audience at the school.
“You always have a choice whether or not to get in a car. There’s Uber, your parents, a friend – if none of those work, call Marisa’s Way, we’ll pick you up. I believe we are all connected – all family. We’re all in this together.”