Woman who became face of anti-drunk driving campaign dies at 40

Jacqueline Saburido dedicated her life to persuading people to never drink and drive after a car crash left her with third-degree burns all over her body.

After 20 years of telling stories about her life-changing injuries as one of Texas’ “faces of drunk driving,” Saburido lost her battle with cancer on Saturday in Guatemala. She was 40 years old.

“The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) extends its most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Jacqueline Saburido,” TABC Executive Director Bentley Nettles told Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement. “Jacqui did not let the tragic circumstances of her accident diminish her, instead using her life story as a lesson on the importance of preventing drunken driving. We are eternally grateful for Jacqui’s bravery, her compassion, and her drive to help others.”

After barely surviving her crash, Jacqui Saburido became a motivational speaker and anti-drunk driving advocate. (Credit: Texas Department of Transportation)

Saburido grew up in Caracas, Venezuela as an only child to divorced parents. At 20 years old, Saburido took a break from college in Caracas and moved to Austin, Texas to learn English. She had plans to help her dad run his air conditioning factory after finishing her industrial engineering degree. However, those plans would never come to fruition.

On Sept. 19, 1999, Saburido was on the way home from a birthday party with four others, sitting in the front passenger seat of a her friend Natalia Bennett’s car when tragedy struck. Reggie Stephey, an 18-year-old student high school student, was driving home when his car drifted across the road’s center stripe and hit the vehicle Saburido was in head-on. He had been drinking.

The crash killed Bennett and Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old University of Texas student from Colombia. While two others were rescued from the crash, Saburido was trapped in the front seat when the car went up in flames. She burned for nearly a minute before paramedics could put out the fire, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Although Saburido barely survived, she suffered extensive third-degree burns that would change her life. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the burns “scorched her eyes and left her blind; melted off her hair; took her ears, lips, nose, and eyelids; and robbed her of the use of her hands.” Saburido underwent well over 100 operations after the crash with medical bills topping $5 million— she lost count of the gross expenses.

Although it was not the life that Saburido had imagined for herself, she used her story to warn others of the often fatal consequences of drinking and driving. Her story became the center of a campaign for the Texas Department of Transportation against drunk driving, appearing in posters, videos and more. The anti-drunk driving advocate allowed the organization to use images of her face before the crash, and photos of her burned and disfigured features from after the accident.

It is estimated that more than one billion people have heard Saburido’s story. She appeared in anti-drunk driving campaigns as far away as Australia and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey show— twice.

“She helped shift our thinking about what it really means to be beautiful. It’s so easy for people to talk about inner beauty; it’s another thing to live it,” Winfrey said of Saburido.

After news of her death spread on social media, people in Texas and beyond expressed their condolences and their admiration of Saburido’s advocacy.

“The bravery of Jacqui Saburido is a truly inspiring example of rising above hardship to make the world a better place,” wrote TABC Chairman Kevin J. Lilly. “Her story has taught an entire generation of Texas high school students about the dangers of DWI, saving countless lives in the process.”

Peggy O’Hare, a reporter at the San Antonio Express News tweeted, “This was a courageous woman who kept going no matter what. A beautiful soul who had a positive outlook regardless of whatever life threw at her.”

Others online recalled hearing Saburido’s story as a student and attributed her story to dissuading them from getting behind the wheel when under the influence. “As a kid growing up in Austin this woman was what I associated drunk driving with,” wrote one Twitter user. “Her courage to embrace her tragedy and share her story saved lives and I am so grateful she made me think twice about putting the keys in after drinking.”

In recent years, the motivational speaker and anti-DUI advocate spent her time in Guatemala City battling cancer, the Austin American-Statesman reported. According to Saburido’s cousin, José Saburido, her body will be flown back to Venezuela. “Her final wish was to be buried next to her mother,” he told the outlet. Saburido’s mother, Rosalia Garcia, died in 2006 after battling cancer.

“Thank you for your tireless efforts to educate young people on the dangers of driving. You fought so hard, now rest,” one Twitter user wrote in honor of Saburido.

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