Megann Heilman turned 22 on Tuesday, thanks to a traffic ticket issued by a Turlock police officer three months ago.
Officer Joe Dusel stopped Heilman near Geer Road and Monte Vista Avenue on Feb. 22.
"I didn't know what he was pulling me over for," said Heilman, who lives in Hughson. "I'm doing everything right — I changed lanes, used my blinker. It didn't occur to me."
What didn't occur to Heilman was that she would be cited for not wearing her seat belt. She never wore her seat belt, telling Dusel that she felt it messed up her hair and wrinkled her clothes, police said.
When Heilman got her ticket, her parents told her, "Good." So did a lot of other people.
"Everybody told me, 'Well, it was just about time, Megann,' " Heilman said Tuesday. "Even though my parents told me to, it just never became a habit for me."
The $170 ticket, however, served as a good reminder each time Heilman got in the car after that. "No way I was going to pay for two tickets," she said.
So Heilman was safely buckled in five days later when she drove along Santa Fe Drive, heading to a cousin's house. That's when a car pulled in front of her at Berkeley Avenue and the two vehicles collided, police said.
Heilman's car, which had been going roughly 55 mph, rolled two to four times. She was hospitalized for five days and suffered a back injury with effects that still linger.
But she's alive, thanks to air bags and a seat belt that did the jobs they were designed to do. As did Dusel.
"Traffic officers' mission is the reduction of collision-related injuries and death through education and enforcement," Turlock police Sgt. Neil Cervenka, supervisor of the department's traffic unit, said in a news release Tuesday. "Many people complain or are upset when they get a citation. We, as police officers, understand that. However, we also understand that the citation is meant to correct negative driving behavior. In this case, it did — and she is here to prove it."
On March 26, Heilman and her parents went to the Turlock Police Department to talk with Dusel. When they met, Heilman's mom, Monika, started to cry.
Monika Heilman explained to Dusel how she and her husband had repeatedly told Megann to wear her seat belt, to no avail.
Heilman explained her reasoning: She's a good driver, she obeys all other traffic laws, she shouldn't have to worry about wearing her seat belt because she wouldn't be doing anything that would merit it.
Now she knows how wrong she was.
"Especially right now, people are going to lakes, going to proms. They're going out thinking, 'I'm just going home or I'm just going around the corner,' " Heilman said. "Well, I was just going down the street. I was just going a few miles away from my home. But I wore my seat belt like I was supposed to.
"You have to keep in mind that everybody else around you isn't doing everything right."
It was a lesson learned the hard way, and Heilman wanted to thank her teacher. Hence the March visit to Dusel.
"He will forever be an impact on my life," she said. "He was doing his job and he did it correctly and I needed to thank him for that. I had to do that."
Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.