Carly Gabrielson counts her blessings.
About two weeks ago, while driving during the early morning hours on Randy Papé Beltline near Division Avenue in Eugene, she was forced to make a split-second decision that probably saved her life and the life of an alleged drunken driver.
“I am very, very thankful,” the 30-year-old said. “And I am thankful my mom taught me defensive driving, because that night it possibly saved my life.”
About 1:15 a.m. on Dec. 18, the campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., was driving her silver Acura west on Beltline. Suddenly, a pair of headlights appeared, heading toward her in the wrong direction.
A suspected drunken driver, 21-year-old John Raymond Player IV, is believed to have driven onto the highway using an offramp as an onramp somewhere west of River Road. Then, he allegedly drove his Subaru Legacy east in the westbound lanes of Beltline toward Division Avenue.
“It was just a wave of sickening panic,” Gabrielson recalled last week, her voice shaking.
Seconds later, west of the Division Avenue exit, Player’s Subaru crashed into Gabrielson’s Acura.
“I closed my eyes, and I wasn’t really sure what the outcome was going to be,” she said. “I was very relieved when I opened my eyes and I realized that I was OK.”
Miraculously, Gabrielson survived the crash, as did Player, of Sweet Home, who was arrested that morning on suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants and taken to the Lane County Jail.
According to Oregon State Police records, Player had a .14 percent blood-alcohol content at the time of the crash. The case has been referred to the Lane County District Attorney’s Office for consideration of charges. Court records indicate those charges have yet to be filed.
Gabrielson said an Oregon State Police trooper, the first to arrive on scene, told her that he’d never seen someone walk away from such a serious crash.
Now, Gabrielson is hoping to use her experience to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.
In 2016, Eugene police made 709 DUII arrests, including arrests made in the first few hours of Sunday, down from 737 arrests made the year before.
When Gabrielson recalled the crash, she credited a split-second decision with saving her life.
After leaving a Christmas gathering with friends, Gabrielson was driving home to the River Road area when she saw the headlights coming toward her.
As Player’s car approached her car, which was in the left lane, she remembered at least one other vehicle in the right lane somewhere behind her. Because of that, she swerved at the last second to the left — toward the concrete center barrier — instead of toward the right, where the other vehicle may have been. That maneuver caused Player’s vehicle to hit the passenger side of her car instead of head-on.
Player’s Subaru ripped off her front right wheel and wheel well, demolishing the passenger side of her vehicle.
Player ran over to her car immediately after the crash, Gabrielson recalled, “and helped me get out. The first thing I remember is how young he was. It was cold and he was holding me, and we were both in shock. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He said he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side (of the highway). He mentioned drinking at a bar. He seemed to be so relieved that I was OK. I don’t know how he was expecting to find me, honestly.”
Gabrielson, who was wearing a seatbelt, suffered some pain and is undergoing physical therapy. Otherwise, she was shaken but unscathed.
Player didn’t have a driver’s license or car insurance, Gabrielson said.
When reached by phone last Friday, Player declined to discuss the details of his criminal case, but he acknowledged the crash. “I made a mistake, and I am just really glad she’s all right,” he said.
Player said he is working in Louisiana. It’s unclear when he will be arraigned.
“It’s a miracle she survived,” Gabrielson’s mother, Victoria Gabrielson, said. “People really need to be aware. Not just of themselves and their choices, but (Player) said he had just left a bar. What about the bar owners? And the servers? Shouldn’t they be responsible to at least call a taxi?”
Carly Gabrielson said Player “made some really bad decisions, and going into the new year I think it’s important to reflect on the duty we all have to make sure we all are maintaining healthy driving habits. And if others are drinking, the ones serving them need to be aware of how this can impact others.”
She said that when she’s behind the wheel, she tries to stay focused on driving.
“In this day and age of so much distraction, we all have things pulling at us in all directions, whether it’s a phone call or a Starbucks coffee,” she said. “We all think we can just multitask, which is true, but this happened so quickly. And when it does happen, you definitely want to have the wherewithal to make a decision, which could make the difference between life or death.”
Gabrielson said she hopes to use her experience to educate and advocate for safe driving habits. She’s also hoping to use the skills she has utilized as being DeFazio’s campaign manager to help another organization — Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She plans to become involved with the group in the new year.
“I realized a lot of the people involved in that organization are volunteers, and they do it because they’ve been personally impacted or had a violent encounter,” she said.
Dec. 18 wasn’t the first time drunken driving has affected Gabrielson’s life, she said.
Gabrielson’s longtime friend was arrested for drunken driving when Gabrielson was 19 years old. The friend had been involved in a car crash in south Eugene that paralyzed a woman, she said. He spent 3½ years in prison for it, she said.
Gabrielson, a graduate of the University of Oregon and South Eugene High School, said she had thought that her friend’s crash would be the closest drunken driving would come to affecting her.
She now knows she was wrong, and hopes to prevent others from being impacted the way she was — or worse.
“I’m very, very fortunate,” she said.