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Photo by James BunoanMiss Huntington Beach Ruth Stainer wasn't the first person outside City Hall on a recent Monday, but she arrived third after her chaperone (she's 17) and the guy who owns the body shop sponsoring her ad campaign. It was her big day, her big week.
Stainer graduated from Edison High School three days later, but she skipped commencement rehearsal that morning to publicize something more important than herself.
Her message, one she'll be promoting throughout her yearlong reign, has personal meaning for her and her family: drunk driving is bad. Or, as it reads on the 10 billboards you'll see around Huntington Beach, "Don't Drive Recklessly. It's a Road We Travel Together." The ad also features a full martini glass with a red line through it and the phrase "Road Rage" with a line through that.
It's a familiar refrain to me, maybe you as well—and not just because everything old is new again or because the state sends out those cool blood-alcohol-level charts meant to scare you straight in the mail every year with your registration renewal.
Celebrity anti-drunken-driving campaigns have been around for at least 60 years—a fact I discovered 14 years ago, when researching a piece on the late actor James Dean. I'm really old, too.
Two months before his death in a car wreck, Dean did a series of TV spots with Everyman actor Gig Young—dressed as a cowpoke (he'd just wrapped "Giant") and ad-libbing the catch phrase with a drawl and a lariat: "Drive safely; the life you save, y'know, it could be mine."
It was the right message at the wrong time, TV's penetration being much less than total. Weeks later, a guy named Donald Turnupseed turned left in front of Dean's Porsche, and the actor died at the scene.
So what makes Stainer's platform different from another ill-aimed 30-second spot—so much that she hopes it will win her the title of Miss California 2004 at this summer's competition in Fresno (city motto: Air you can see)?
Partly, it's her story: four years ago, her mom was driving her home from school when a driver going the other way ran the red light, hitting them at full speed. Their car flipped twice and hit a third vehicle, leaving Stainer with a concussion and no memory of the accident—and her mother with 10 broken bones.
"I actually still don't go through that intersection," said Stainer, who recently got her driver's license and says she drives "very carefully."
The difference is also the fact that her anti-drunk-driving ads—which feature her prominently, in cocktail dress, sash and tiara—are posted at bus shelters, instead of on those full-size billboards overhead.
And it's the fact that—like James Dean, ironically—Stainer's brush with death came at the hands of a careless driver and not some Joe Sixpack blitzed on Miller Highlife.
Her ads should make a helluva impression on bus drivers and the other people who need to hear this message most of all: the working poor of Orange County who can't afford cars of their own, but would clearly drive drunk and enraged if they could.