Hero at the Wheel: When Mother Collapses, Boy, 9, Drives Across Freeway Lanes to Safety

A third-grader with a stomachache was hailed as a hero Monday after he guided his unconscious mother's van through a quarter-mile of freeway traffic after she collapsed behind the wheel.

"My mom said she was getting sick, and then she started to shake and then she passed out," said 9-year-old David Dillman of San Pedro, whose mother, Mary Dillman, was driving their minivan in the fast lane of the southbound San Diego Freeway when she apparently suffered a seizure.

"So I took hold of the steering wheel and unbuckled my seatbelt, and I drove through four lanes to the right-hand side. My mom had shown me how to drive when I was 7--she put me on her lap and let me drive the wheel. I just kept thinking that my mom was going to die, and I just had to get the van over to the right-hand side."

Mary Dillman, 38, was taken to Gardena Memorial Hospital for examination after the incident, which took place about 11 a.m. near the freeway's Western Avenue exit, authorities said. Her husband, Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Dillman, said it was the first time such a thing had happened to her, and that her doctors had not determined why she collapsed.

Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities lauded the child's poise in handling a life-threatening emergency.

"I asked him afterward how he had learned to drive, and he said it was just by watching his mom," said California Highway Patrol Officer Todd Sturges. "I said, 'Were you scared?' And he said, 'No.' And I said, 'Well, you're a real hero' -- which he definitely is. This had a happy ending, and it could have turned out a lot differently."

Robert Dillman said his wife and son had been visiting him at the Air Force base in El Segundo and were heading home when his wife collapsed. David, he said, had stayed home from school, complaining that his stomach hurt.

"They were in the lane adjacent to the car-pool lane, and had drifted into it before David could unbuckle his seat belt and take the wheel," Dillman said. With no idea which pedal was the accelerator and which was the brake, he said, David stepped onto the gas, then managed to slow the van.

"He did a magnificent job," the father said. "We're very proud of his presence of mind and clarity of thought in a pressing situation."

"He steered it for approximately a quarter-mile until it came to rest on its own. Then he put it in park and turned off the ignition," Sturges said.

Highway Patrol officers were on the scene within minutes, having been summoned by other drivers who had seen the van begin to swerve, Sturges said.

Mary Dillman, Sturges said, was semiconscious when paramedics arrived. She was released from the hospital after several hours of testing, her husband said.

David said he was surprised "that a 9-year-old like me" could manage such a feat--especially because "I was weaving in and out of cars, and none of 'em slowed down."

He said he and his mother shed a few frightened tears at the end of the ordeal but otherwise remained calm.

His mother, he said, was still feeling a bit woozy Monday night. He did not say whether his stomachache had gone away.

original article featured in LA Times; written by Shawn Hubler, March 15, 1994