Episode 64: The Driver

Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars. This is Sarah Goodyear with my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon. This episode is going to be different. We’re going to hear a story, and it’s a very painful story, from a woman named Shane Snowdon, who killed someone with her car. It happened more than 20 years ago and it changed her life forever.

Doug Gordon: A warning: Shane’s story is upsetting, and she tells it in graphic detail. This episode is not appropriate for young children.

Aaron Naparstek: Our podcast usually focuses on the victims of traffic violence, and that’s where the focus belongs. But we think Shane has an important story to tell. While many crashes are caused by people driving negligently or recklessly, without any regard for the potential consequences, drivers also kill under entirely mundane circumstances. It happens every day.

Sarah: It’s part of the reality of what a transportation system built around cars and driving does. When people have to use a machine that’s as deadly as a loaded gun to do everything: go to work, take the kids to baseball practice, buy a quart of milk, it isn’t that hard for an ordinary person to become a killer.

Doug: On some level, we all know this. But when we hear about a traffic crash, we think that’s something that only happens to other drivers. We don’t like to believe that we could be responsible for taking another human being’s life. It’s a worst-case scenario we keep hidden from ourselves.

Sarah: For Shane, that worst-case scenario became reality. Shane is an LGBTQ advocate and educator who has spent her career working in nonprofits, serving women, domestic violence survivors and formerly incarcerated people. She was 41 when she killed a young man named Guillermo Venancio while driving home one night in 1997. A few years back, she started to tell that story regularly and in public because she thinks it is so important to let people know this could happen to you. And if it did, nothing would ever be the same.

Shane Snowdon: This happened a little over 20 years ago on California Highway 1, which is one of the nation’s iconic, beautiful highways. It’s the road that goes down most of California right by the ocean. And very few cars there, it’s particularly beautiful. And I came around a curve on the road, it was a little after dark. And as I came around the curve, shortly after I rounded the curve, I heard just an unearthly thud. I mean, like no noise I’d ever heard. And I think I thought for a split second, “Oh, oh! Did I hit a deer?” I think I thought for a second—because this is the other really unearthly sound I associate with California—”An earthquake? It’s not an earthquake.” And then—and then I saw rolling up over the hood of my car a young man. He rolled up over my hood and into my windshield, and then he flew up over my car.

Sarah: Shane stopped her car and got out immediately. She tried to imagine the best possible outcome: that the man would be okay.

Shane Snowdon: I thought, “Oh, well, maybe it was just a touch and he’ll be, you know, sitting by the side of the road dusting himself off. Or I can help him up and, you know, just go find him.” And I ran up the road back where I thought I’d hit him, and I couldn’t find him. So I ran back to my car and I jumped in. And it was a very rural area. And I probably tried the police, the highway patrol, you know, it felt like a million times, just punching 911 in. I finally got hold of somebody and said, “I think I’ve hit somebody.” And I said—because I really wanted her to get it—”I think I might have killed him. I think I might have killed him.” And she said, you know, “Where are you?” And I said—and she said, “Oh, we can’t—I don’t think I can get anyone there very soon.” She said, “You know, we’ll do the best we can.”

Shane Snowdon: I don’t know if she said, but it was at least another 20 minutes or so. I think we were cut off, I’m not even sure we hung up, and I thought, “Oh, I have to go out and look for him. Maybe I can find him and help him.” And I ran back up the road and, you know, it was dark. I thought I could see a dark shape, but I didn’t. And there were no cars passing. I flagged down one car, and there’s a middle-aged man driving it. And I said, “I think that I’ve hit somebody. I think I’ve killed somebody. Can you help me?” And I think he thought I was crazy. I don’t know if he’d even gotten out of his car, but he drove off. And then these young women stopped in their car, and I was a little bit calmer this time because I really needed help. And I said, “Could I ask you to help me look? I think I have hit somebody.” And incredibly, these young women in, you know, maybe late teens or something, they got out of the car with a flashlight, and they started looking in one direction, I looked in the other. And they shouted out that they had found him. They had found him. And they went back to their car.

Shane Snowdon: And I totally understand. But I felt I need to—I need to go over and see him, be with him. And as I walked past their car, they put their door locks down, and I thought, “Oh, you know, I get that. I get that, yeah.” And I went over to him, and I could see. He was so still. I knew that he had probably died. And I wanted to go over and be right with him, but I remember thinking really, really clearly, how close is his killer allowed to get? Am I allowed to go over and be with him? But I did. I went over and stood with him, over him. Said and thought what I could. Just him and me under the—under the moon. And then I turned and went back to my car because I remembered that the 911 dispatcher had actually said to me, you know, “Stay in the car if we need to reach you. You know, so you’re there when the first responders come.” And I walked back to my car and I just got back in the driver’s seat, which also felt really strange. And, you know, I just cried and cried and I said over and over again, “I can’t—I can’t believe this, I can’t believe that he’s dead. I can’t believe this. I just can’t—I can’t believe. Oh, no. Oh, no.”

Sarah: Shane says she doesn’t know how long she waited before the first responders got there. Time seemed to have stopped.

Shane Snowdon: I had no idea what to expect. I mean, I felt like I’m a killer. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. As the officer came over, I was—you know, this is the first person I talked with who had any experience or any knowledge, and I just didn’t know what to expect. And I remember exactly what he said. I don’t know how to say this without sounding judgmental or whatever toward the police, because I’m not. I mean, they see the brutality of traffic violence all the time. This is not for them what it was for me. You know, I felt “My God, you know, I’ve just brought death to somebody.” And he was very matter of fact. He—you know, he obviously wanted to find out, you know, did I have liquor on my breath? Did I seem impaired? That was one of his first concerns. And, you know, “Where have you come from? Who are you? Let me see your paperwork.”

Shane Snowdon: I remember he wanted to know what was my last stop? The thing that I really, really remember is, of course, you know, he leaned in, he smelled my breath. He looked around and had me get out. And he had me, you know, initially try to walk a line. And he said, “So have you been drinking?” And I said—which is still the case, actually. I had an aunt who died in a car crash because she was driving drunk. I was just a teenager then. And one result of that for me was I actually have never drunk in my life. And he said, “Well, what did you last have to eat?” “Well, I stopped and I had a Big Mac up the road.” And he said, “Well, you know, on a breathalyzer, onions on a Big Mac, they come out just like alcohol.” And I looked at him like, “What?” So I said, “Oh, really?” And he said, “Not really. It’s a joke!” And that has stayed with me, you know, as if it just happened a few minutes ago. And it’s hard to tell that story because I—first responders go through so much, and I know they have their ways of coping. They see so much. And yet, of course, for me that was so, so different from, you know, joke. It had just been, you know, sent in from another universe.

Sarah: Shane sat in her car while the police and the EMTs did their work on the scene. No one told her what was going to happen to her or what she was expected to do. She just waited.

Shane Snowdon: No one ever came over to me. I kept feeling like, you know, I just killed somebody. Should someone, you know, come over and be—giving me a—interrogating me? Should they be telling me something? But no one ever came over to me for several hours. With one exception. The EMTs were about to drive off and I thought, “Oh, I—I guess he’s dead. I wonder is anyone going to tell me?” And then this very tall, blond woman EMT, she came over and she leaned in and she said very firmly, without any preliminary, without asking me anything, without knowing anything as far as I knew about me or what had happened, she said, “It was an accident.” And I thought, “Do you know that? I don’t know that. Why do you think that? Are you just being nice to me?” And finally, one of the officers came over and said, “His brother—his brother is coming and you should go.”

Sarah: Shane’s car was too damaged to drive. She called a friend and got a ride home. When you kill someone with a gun, you deal with the criminal justice system. When you kill someone with a car, you deal with an insurance company. That’s what Shane did.

Shane Snowdon: You know, I had to arrange for my car to be towed to a shop. And I thought, you can’t just repair in a body—what a terrible phrase, I’ll say it—body shop kind of way. A car that’s, you know, has killed somebody has the blood of the person on it. So I went in and went over to the counter, and I got the keys from the woman, you know, signed the paperwork. And she said, “You know, the guys did a great job. It’s good as new. You’d never know you hit that deer.” And I looked at her and I thought—I thought, “Well, I can’t let her think it was a deer. It wasn’t a deer, it was a person.” I have to—you know, I have to—it’s this little bit of remembering him and honoring him. “No, that wasn’t a deer. No, it wasn’t a deer.” And I know it was really urgent. And she looked at me and right away she got it. Right away she got it. I mean, she could have thought, “Oh, it was another large animal.” Oh, no. She got it. It was something in my voice. And she handed me the keys and then she walked away. And it was again, like the young women putting down their door locks. I thought, Yes, yes. You know, I get that. I get that.”

Sarah: In the weeks and months after the crash, Shane was surprised at how slowly the investigation played out. No one was communicating with her—not the police, not the media, nobody. But her insurance agent, who wasn’t supposed to tell her anything while the investigation was ongoing, did give her the basic facts about the person she had killed. His name was Guillermo Venancio.

Shane Snowdon: He was 18. He was 18, and he had just gotten off work in the farm fields right there by the road. He had only been in the US for a very short time. I know his brother actually worked on the same farm or a nearby farm. So I have a story about him coming with a lot of hope to be with his brother, leaving his family in Mexico. I did find out he was from Mexico. And he was leaving the farm after a—I’m sure, it’s a very long, long, exhausting day of work. Yeah. He was coming down the farm road on one of the old bicycles on the farm, so he was actually biking across to go slightly down the road. The insurance agent told me—I don’t know if it’s exactly true—that he grabbed the old bicycles they keep on the farms because the workers even now have to rely on walking or on these old bikes that are just in a heap on farms to move around. He had grabbed one of the old farm bikes and was just cutting across the roadway to join his buddies and maybe even his brother.

Sarah: The information Shane got about Guillermo Venancio made the finality of what she had done even more real. She envisioned his family and what they were going through. Shane was someone who had always tried to make positive change through her work. Now she was a killer.

Shane Snowdon: I really felt two things very, very strongly. One was, I’m not sure that I deserve to go on living, having killed somebody. I had never, never, never, never, never, like, I think almost everyone ever dreamed that I would kill somebody in my life. I just felt like, you know, I don’t know if I get to go on living. Do you get to go on living once you’ve killed somebody? And that was despite the fact that neither at the time nor in the ultimate investigation did they say I was at fault. Nonetheless, I really felt, oh, do you get to go on living? I also felt like I don’t—just to be honest with you, I don’t know if I want to go on living. I don’t know if I can go on living. And I couldn’t even, like, enunciate that to people, so I withdrew totally. I did not talk. And I am a talkative gal.

Sarah: Shane struggled to cope with her feelings of guilt and isolation after the crash. She went to therapy to help her figure out how to go forward. The investigation went on for several months, but no charges were ever filed. Still, even after she no longer faced legal consequences, Shane couldn’t stop thinking about the crash. To this day, she doesn’t know exactly what happened in those moments that led to Guillermo Venancio’s death.

Shane Snowdon: I hold this as a mystery. There were only two of us there. I don’t—you know, I obviously wasn’t drunk or high, that wasn’t my thing. I don’t—I don’t believe I was speeding. I don’t remember being distracted. I wasn’t—and it was dark, so I wasn’t looking at the ocean. Might I have looked in my rearview mirror? Might I have been changing the heat controls? I will never know. I mean, this is just something that I live with. I will never know whether I could have seen him. Obviously, this is an old bicycle and it did not have lights, but could I have seen him? Was I in some way, you know, small d distracted, even if I wasn’t capital D Distracted. So I don’t know, and I don’t want to harden up a narrative. And I think that’s something—I know that that’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.

Sarah: So do you think that—I mean, did some part of you wish that there were a punishment or some kind of thing for you to do in response to this?

Shane Snowdon: Yes. I remember even that night sitting in the car and watching the police do their work, and thinking—I asked myself over and over, especially after the EMT came over and said it was an accident, which meant to me, as it does to a lot of people, you weren’t at fault. I thought oh, I would like to believe that, but I don’t know that. It was just him and me, and there’s only one of us left. And so I thought, I don’t remember doing anything that caused this. But, you know, if I get charged and if I go to jail, I accept that.

Sarah: Shane only began to tell her story in public a few years ago, after a friend riding a bicycle was killed by a driver when pulling out of a parking lot in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the second anniversary of her friend’s death, Shane wrote a piece about her own experience as a killer, and it was published on the website of public radio station WBUR. That was the beginning of her actively taking on the work of educating drivers about what it means to kill someone with your car. She wrote, “If you remember nothing else I write. I hope you’ll remember this: you do not want to be me. No destination, no text, no drink, no glance away from the road is worth knowing that you have killed another human being.” It got a lot of response. Understandably, not a lot of it was sympathetic. Some of it was downright hostile.

Shane Snowdon: I wrote a little piece online, and of course, there was a comments section. And I read all the comments. And one of them was, “Why isn’t this bitch in jail?” That’s a question. That was sort of my question. You know, why isn’t this bitch in jail? And no, I don’t remember doing something that caused the crash, but yes, you know, that the fact of having killed somebody, you think, “Yeah.” And I know that’s one reason why I talk, why I do the work I do. Because I didn’t go to jail and I can’t volunteer for jail. But there is, even as someone who’s been exonerated and does not specifically remember doing something, someone died. And it feels like more should happen. And so I’m kind of making more happen by going out and telling the story, and trying to say to drivers, this happens. You actually know this happens. You’ve had a close call, or you know somebody who’s brought death. Let’s talk about it, and let’s start driving in terms of it. It’s not only—although this is critical and horrible—a matter of potentially killing other people and bringing huge harm and sadness to their families, you’re doing this to yourself, too. Let me talk about life after you’ve killed somebody.

Sarah: As you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking a couple of things. One is just the sheer amount of pain that your crash caused for this young man’s brother, and presumably his family, for him and the moments that he was aware of what was happening. And for you, and I imagine for your family and loved ones as well. And then you just multiply that. This pain is sort of this undercurrent of life in this country.

Shane Snowdon: Pain hidden in plain sight. And as you say, the toll is enormous, and we need to talk about it. And it is—everyone in my situation who’s on their own journey. And also I hope that more drivers will speak up, because there are a lot of us. And I think we can play a part in underscoring the terrible toll taken. And I want to be sure to say I would never make my pain equal to that of the family, of the young man I hit. I’m not here to say, “Oh, driver’s pain.” No, no, no, no. What I’m here to say is try to make more vivid. And I will say I killed somebody. I use the word “kill.” I will call myself a killer, because I want people to get what’s really going on. But I do want to watch out. I don’t want to seem as if I’m diminishing the pain of other people, the drivers, we—those of us who’ve brought death, we have our own particular journey.

Sarah: One phrase that you’ve just used over and over again that’s been very powerful for me, you talk about yourself as someone who has brought death.

Shane Snowdon: Does that seem to you like a distancing phrase? Or a …

Sarah: No, it doesn’t. It’s new. It seems slightly unusual. It doesn’t seem distancing at all. It seems somewhat poetic. You know, I think of the angel of death when I hear that, but not in a way that I think is sort of putting a veil of respectability on it. It seems like to say, “I am someone who brought death,” is a very dark reckoning with yourself to see yourself that way. And I mean, in a way, that’s what you’ve been talking about this whole time.

Shane Snowdon: I’m glad to hear it doesn’t feel distancing to you, Sarah. That means a lot. That is a phrase I use fairly often because, although as I mentioned earlier, I’m willing, very willing to say “I killed, I’m a killer,” sometimes people, because there’s the association with, you know, mass shootings from fiction and films and TV shows, they have a particular notion of a killer as someone who sets out with intention. They go, “Oh, no, no,” if people start wondering if I’m using the right phrase or they’re startled. So although I’m willing to embrace the word “killer,” and I’m willing to say “I killed,” what I’ve realized is that if I say, “I brought death,” it is vivid. It does get across the suddenness and the weight of this without people having a lot of other associations. As you say, it’s a pretty new phrase. And what I’ll often say is, “I brought death in everyday life.”

Sarah: Is there anything else you feel like you want to add?

Shane Snowdon: There’s a part of me that feels grateful that you would have me on. I’m really glad that you had this conversation with me. And I know there may be people who feel like there are a million issues with traffic violence, and why did they put her on? I want to say I’m grateful. And I also hope that nothing I’ve said has brought anyone any pain. I really hope that. My intention is to try to help. And I always say—and there’s no way I’ll ever know this, but if there’s one less injury, certainly one less death, I just hope in the process that I don’t disturb or bring pain to people.

Sarah: Thank you for listening. There are a lot of people out there fighting to end traffic violence. One group, started by people who have lost loved ones is Families for Safe Streets. They have chapters across the United States. We’ll have links in the show notes if you want to connect with them or learn more about what they do.

Sarah: This episode was produced by me, Sarah Goodyear, with editing and sound design by Ali Lemer. The music in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and on behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars.