Crash survivor warns Ocean City High School students of distracted driving dangers

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Gabriel Hurley speaks to OCHS students about the danger of distracted driving. The assembly included graphic images of his injuries, but also guitar music and a hopeful message. Gabriel Hurley speaks to OCHS students about the danger of distracted driving. The assembly included graphic images of his injuries, but also guitar music and a hopeful message. OCEAN CITY — Gabriel Hurley presented students at Ocean City High School with a graphic warning of the dangers of driving while distracted.

Speaking before a group of high school juniors and seniors Tuesday, April 22, Hurley said he stayed out of trouble, earned good marks and excelled in sports through high school and college.

“When I graduated from Rutgers, one would say my life was about to begin,” he said. “I drove a sporty Mustang; I had the looks, I had the life, I had the girl.”

But everything changed on June 18, 2009, when he headed out for an errand. He was headed to Las Vegas in the morning with a group of friends. Instead, he woke up to darkness, hooked up to monitors in a hospital.

“That’s when my new life began,” said Hurley.

Hurley regularly speaks to students about the collision, in hopes of preventing something similar from happening to someone else. A grant from the Ocean City Police paid for the Ocean City assembly. Hurley was reimbursed for his travel expenses. 

Hurley said 10 high school students were out for a night of joyriding, in four separate cars on that June evening. They were celebrating, he said. They were also speeding.

“The lead car went out of control” on a narrow bridge in Middlesex, he said. The car ricocheted into oncoming traffic, and hit the bridge. The hood popped open and a metal air-conditioning compressor flew out.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. The compressor crashed through his windshield, crushing his skull.

“It hit me directly in the face,” he said. The injuries were horrific. When he woke up in the hospital, he said he touched his face and asked himself, “is this a dream?”

He was placed in a medically-induced coma; he lost his eyesight and his sense of smell and taste. A dozen surgeries later, problems from the brain injury remain.

“I knew my life was never going to be the same,” he said. He spent two months in the hospital, and when he finally came home, reality hit.

“I stepped into my bedroom, and I said ‘Is this it, is this what life is going to be?’” he said.

“My world had been turned upside down but I was not going to let that discourage me,” he said. He would not dwell on negative thoughts, or ponder what his life would be if he had turned left instead of right.
Some choices, he told the students, are beyond their control, but distracted driving was not one of them.

“Driving is a tremendous responsibility and privilege that we take for granted,” he said.

Hurley asked the students if they considered what happened to him an accident.

“Because I don’t,” he said. “This was no accident, this was a bad decision made by one kid.”

A reckless teenager changed his life, he said. Nothing can change that now, he said, but it could have been prevented.

The most important message, he said, was that there were nine other kids involved in the out-of-control caravan.

Hurley landed at a rehabilitation hospital for brain injured patients and realized things could be much worse.

“Being exposed to that made the transition easier,” he said. “I had tremendous support with my friends and family.”

In spite of the loss, he maintained a positive attitude.

“Happiness is a choice,” he said.

He embraced life. Stripped of his eyesight, his job and his freedom, he accepted the new reality.

“I did not survive to resent life,” he said, adding that he would dedicate the rest of his life to preventing another tragedy.

“Hopefully I can stop this from happening to other people and their families,” he said. “You as drivers are in control, and you can stop this.”

Hurley showed the students grisly pictures of his face after the crash and after his many surgeries, as well as pictures of his once-prized Mustang, which was totaled.

The photos show the intensity of the impact, the dent in the steering wheel from his face and the blood all over the car. It was not a pretty sight, he acknowledged, but one the students needed to see.

 “I’m a medical miracle and I’m very lucky to be alive,” he said. “Every bone in my face was fractured.”

Doctors used titanium to rebuild his face.

“I’m not showing you these photos to scare you, this is reality. There are thousands of accidents and there is always one common denominator, reckless, distracted driving.”

Hurley also showed pictures from his life before the crash; of a happy-go-lucky student at St. Joseph’s High School, a Rutgers grad and a gainfully employed techie.

He had a great life, he said; one he never took for granted.

About 10 days after he regained consciousness, a friend brought a guitar to the hospital. He still plays in a band, The New Black, which he helped found before the crash.

Music helped save him, he said.

Hurley played a guitar medley Tuesday and the students asked for an encore; he happily obliged.

“I serve as an important reminder of the importance of actions can have serious consequences,” he said. “I would like to think that the boy who drove out of control did not say ‘hey, I want to end someone’s life.’”

Students could ask questions afterward, they lined up to greet him, thank him and shake his hand. Several told him his story had an impact. One girl shared a story of a recent crash she was in which the driver was distracted. 


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