BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Midway through a safe-driving presentation that had parents laughing, gasping and answering questions, Lynda Gazzara took the microphone, and the room fell silent.
"The pain of losing your child is a pain that will never go away," said the mother of Nick Gazzara, a Buena Vista Township native and Sacred Heart High School student who died in a December car accident.
Buena Regional High School is one of the only schools in the region that requires parents to attend a safety meeting at the school before their children can go to the prom.
At Wednesday morning's session, Gazzara tearfully provided her personal experience and anguish to more than 100 mothers and fathers in the audience.
"I'm just hoping parents leave here with something different they can tell their child that changes the way they drive," she said afterward.
Gazzara felt strongly enough about spreading her message that she offered to help the South Jersey Traffic Safety Alliance, a group that promotes traffic safety throughout Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties.
In the high school auditorium, she was the guest speaker during a presentation by Mike Tullio, a retired Atlantic City police officer and the alliance's traffic safety specialist.
Tullio, of Egg Harbor Township, has made the presentation at Buena and other schools for years, and this year he focused on the usual warnings about teaching teens safe driving, as well as explaining New Jersey's graduated driver's license laws.
He showed a Saturday Night Live skit making fun of adults' poor driving habits, and another tongue-in-cheek clip of a man explaining why he's too cool for a seatbelt - until he falls out his unlocked car door.
But the facts of his presentation were sobering - 677 New Jersey teens died in car crashes from 2000 to 2009, and 6,000 died nationwide over that time.
Overall, more people have died in New Jersey car crashes since 2003 than have U.S. soldiers in combat during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Tullio advised the audience to be strict, citing studies that have found children with authoritative parents are half as likely to crash, twice as likely to wear a seatbelt and 70 percent less likely to drink and drive.
Speakers from Atlantic Prevention Resources and Atlantic County Intergenerational Services warned the parents about giving their children alcohol and told them to talk to their teens about sex and drugs.
"This is your last chance to get through to them," Tullio said, "until they turn 21 and move back in."
Several parents said attending the presentation was not a chore.
"I thought it was very informative," said Charlene Johnson, of Buena, who has an 18-year-old daughter.
"You do have to talk to your kids and see where their heads are at," she added.
Carlo Favretto, of Buena Vista Township, said he also had a few things he intended to take away from the event and talk to his 17-year-old son about.
"I'm definitely going to make sure I know where he's going and what he's doing after the prom," he said.
For Lynda Gazzara, she wished she had been told Tullio's advice to have student drivers practice in poor weather conditions before they drive on their own.
"If they practice in sunshine, that's all they're going to know," he said.
Gazzara's 18-year-old son crashed into a box truck on Route 54 on Dec. 16 as afternoon snow blanketed the highway. Subsequent police reports, citing witnesses driving behind both vehicles, said Nick Gazzara's 1998 Lincoln MK8 lost control and drifted into oncoming traffic, hitting the truck head on. The violent collision ripped off the driver's side door, windshield and sunroof of Gazzara's car.
The teen was pronounced dead at the scene.
He was on his way home from the gym and had no drugs or alcohol in his system, but police found his seatbelt "fully retracted and locked in position," indicating he was not wearing it.
The safety alliance will be dedicating a tree in the former star soccer player's memory on May 7 at the Joseph E. Romano Sports Complex in Vineland.
Lynda Gazzara has also started the "Buckle Up for Nick" campaign with the alliance, putting logos on roadside banners, posters stickers and driveway stencils - as well as the black T-shirt she wore Wednesday.
The pre-prom meeting was the third time the mother spoke about her loss, including an earlier meeting at the school and a program at Egg Harbor Township High School.
"I don't think it's ever going to be easy," she said.
Contact Lee Procida: