Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day

by Ray LaHood
I’d like to thank the folks at KDOT, not just for inviting me to write another blog post, but for making such a strong commitment to road safety through this 20-day run-up to Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day.
Safety is our number one priority at DOT, and events like Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day are a great way to remind everyone of the simple steps they can take to make our roadways safer for everyone who uses them.
Fortunately, people are listening. In 2010, traffic fatalities dropped to the lowest levels since 1949, and that’s in spite of Americans driving 21 billion more miles than they did last year. In the region covering Kansas as well as Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska, fatalities dropped by 2.6% from 2009.
But, as anyone who has lost a loved one in a traffic crash can tell you, any number of fatalities other than zero is too high. If one of the 33,000 people killed on the road last year was one of your friends or family members, then you know all too well that we cannot rest on our laurels.
Other writers on this blog have talked about common-sense ways that you can keep yourself safe while on the road. Candice Breshears and Bill Self talked about the importance of wearing a seat belt. Rick Heinrich talked about not drinking and driving. We’ve tried to echo this with national awareness campaigns like “Click It or Ticket” and “Over the Limit, Under Arrest.”
I’d like to focus on the epidemic of distracted driving. Whether it’s visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel) or cognitive (taking your mind off what you’re doing), distracted driving slows your reflexes and puts you at much greater risk for a crash.
In fact, almost 5,500 people were killed and 500,000 more were injured in distracted driving crashes in 2009. And those aren't just statistics--they're parents, children, neighbors, and friends.
Our ongoing series, “Faces of Distracted Driving,” shares some of their stories. The videos feature families from all across America who have been injured or lost loved ones because a driver was texting or talking on a cell phone behind the wheel. These people are proof that distracted driving can have tragic consequences for entire communities.
But the speakers in these videos don’t just want to share their stories and be done with it. They’re committed to reducing the number of traffic fatalities to as low a number as we can get. Many people--like Amanda Umscheid of Manhattan, Kan.--have used these tragedies as springboards to action, encouraging young drivers to put their devices away, urging their communities to sign pledges, or testifying in state legislatures on behalf of distracted driving bans.
While we've made significant progress on road safety issues over the years, we still have plenty of work ahead of us. That's why we need the dedicated folks who are part of Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day to keep up this terrific effort to remind people to drive as safely as possible on October 10, and every day.

Ray LaHood is the United States Secretary of Transportation.

Reducing Fatalities One Person at a Time

by Phyllis Marotta
Okay, I admit it: I’m a safety nerd. You know, the grandma who makes sure the kiddos are safely buckled into the correct carseat. The person who gives you the “buckle up” gesture at the red light when she sees you aren’t wearing your seatbelt. The one who reminds you to have a SOBER designated driver for the night. The woman who promotes the graduated drivers license law for teens, which gives them lots of supervised experience behind the wheel. The gal who dons a helmet when she gets on the back of a motorcycle. The one who tells you to put down the phone when you aren’t paying attention to the green turn arrow. So, was I born this way, or am I a product of my environment?
I am definitely a product of my environment. At one time, I was the teen who rolled a car on a country road because I was not experienced enough to know that if you hit the brakes on gravel, you’d lose control. I was also the woman who was always nodding off at the wheel because I didn’t know I had mild narcolepsy. I’m the driver who admits to having a lead foot--but I’m working on correcting that habit because I know speed kills.
Wearing a helmet did not come naturally to me--I loved feeling my hair blow in the wind! Child safety seats? C’mon, I was the little girl sitting on the tailgate of the family station wagon in the 1950s; my brothers thought it was great fun to give me a little shove and then yell at Dad to slow down so I could run and hop back on. Riding inside the car, my mom was my seatbelt, throwing out her arm to protect me when she slammed on the brakes. As for modern technology--weren’t cell phones invented to keep me alert, especially on a long trip?
So when did my habits and attitudes start changing? Forty years ago, a close friend fell asleep at the wheel, hit a culvert, and was killed. Nearly twenty years ago, some friends were hit by a drunk driver the weekend before their baby was due, killing their beautiful baby girl. Twelve years ago, a woman from our small town fell asleep and drove under a semi, killing herself and her two sons. Ten years ago, a friend and I were the first ones to discover a rollover crash, where I found the driver facedown in a ditch, ejected from his pickup and killed, and the area strewn with empty beer cans. Even after experiencing those tragedies, I wasn’t the safety advocate that I am today.
For the past 7 years, I have worked in KDOT’s Traffic Safety Section. Within the first month on the job, my son lost one of his friends due to driving drunk and not wearing a seatbelt. Just a couple of weeks later, a friend of mine driving a grain truck failed to stop at the stop sign at a rural intersection less than a mile from his home, was hit by another truck, was not wearing his seatbelt, and was killed. I have read too many fatal crash reports, and have studied enough stats to make my head spin.
I have worked with law enforcement officers, and have watched them detect and arrest drunk drivers. I have mourned the loss of a close friend who was the victim of a drunk driver. I have seen a friend loaded into an ambulance because he pulled out on his motorcycle in front of a pickup. I have seen many close calls where drivers were focusing on phones (or other distractions) instead of driving. I have pleaded with friends and family members, and argued with them about whether it should be their “choice” or the law to wear their seatbelts/helmets.
On the flip side, I have seen our adult seatbelt rate go from 68% to 83%. I’ve seen many life-saving improvements in our laws. I’ve seen children leave a parking lot more safely than they arrived, because parents were taught how to install car seats. I’ve heard stories from teens about surviving crashes because they made the choice to buckle up after going through the S.A.F.E. (Seatbelts Are For Everyone) program. I’ve seen drivers, including myself, change behaviors due to dangers that have been brought to our attention.
Sometimes I get discouraged with the ones who don’t get the message, but I’m still determined to try to “Put the Brakes on Fatalities” by reaching one person at a time!

Phyllis Marotta is in KDOT’s Transportation Safety and Technology Bureau

Importance of Safety Messages Seen Firsthand

by Chris Herrick
I started my first career at NCR Corporation as a sales representative. My job was to sell retail applications to businesses that helped them control their inventory and provided them with an audit trail of business transactions. While working at NCR, I always felt like I was trying to sell someone something that I had very little personal experience with and never used myself. For the last 20 years I have worked for KDOT, and have listened to all of our safety campaigns over the years “Click it or Ticket,” “Drunk Driving: Over the Limit, Under Arrest” etc.
Three years ago I really realized how important our campaigns are and how seat belts do save lives. Three years ago my in-laws came to visit us so they could attend a school band concert that my youngest son was playing in. My in-laws, who were in their 70s, lived in Wichita and traveled to Topeka for the concert. After the concert was over they decided to drive back to Wichita even though it was raining. We didn’t like the idea of them driving in the rain but they had commitments the next day that they couldn’t miss.
On their drive back to Wichita, it started raining hard. Just outside of Emporia my father-in-law started hydroplaning and hit the middle concrete barrier on the Turnpike. He tried to regain control of his car but he was unable to and their car careened out of control down a steep embankment. Their car ended up in a creek that was quickly filling up with water.
Luckily, a car behind them saw what had happened and stopped to help them. Both of my in-laws were able to walk up the embankment with help from the people who stopped to help. Both of my in-laws were wearing seat belts which minimized their injuries. Their car was mangled but somehow they were able to walk away from the crash. Without their seat belts, I don’t believe that they would have survived the crash. My mother-in-law sustained a crushed vertebra and my father-in-law suffered a head trauma that later caused a brain bleed.
Unfortunately for us, my father-in-law was on a blood thinner and later suffered a fatal brain bleed due to the head trauma and passed away. It was really difficult for me to lose a person I looked up to and considered one of my best friends. But I am convinced, if he wouldn’t have been wearing a seat belt, he probably wouldn’t have survived the immediate crash. My mother-in-law survived the crash and is doing fine, which is a blessing.
It took a personal experience like this to drive home the point of how important our safety promotions are and how important it is to wear your seat belt. Seat belts save lives, so PLEASE buckle up!

Chris Herrick is the KDOT Director of Planning and Development.

All the Things He was Supposed to Do

by Steve Swartz
I was in 8th grade, home on Christmas vacation and still in bed when I heard my mother answer the phone about 8 a.m. It was her brother calling from Denver to tell us that their oldest brother, Jack, had died a few hours earlier when the long-haul truck he was driving plowed into the back of another truck parked on the side of a foggy Pennsylvania highway. Then I heard my mother, needing more verification, call the trucking company to find out if her brother had really been killed.
There had been no mistake.
It’s more than 40 years since we got that call, but I believe that every Dec. 27th since I’ve thought about that morning. Uncle Jack was my roommate for about five months between the time he took a job in Kansas City and when his family moved out from California to join him. By the time he moved out of the house, we were pretty good friends.
When I think about that morning, it’s not so much about how I’ve always missed him, but more about all the things that never happened because he didn’t come home from that trip. He didn’t come close to reaching retirement when he could leave the road for the last time and enjoy living at home for more than just a few days at a time. He didn’t get to attend graduations, weddings or the births of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He didn’t get to give advice or be a joker to his kids or me or any of us.
He didn’t get to hold the hand of his wife, my oh-so-fun aunt with the goofy name of Snooky, when she became confused with Alzheimer’s disease. Nor did he get to comfort my cousins Kathy and John through their health crises.
I’m not sure I ever knew what caused the crash. Was the parked truck pulled all the way off the road? Did the fog make it hard to see? Was Jack tired? It doesn’t matter.
If my old roommate could talk to me today, he might tell me how he regrets not getting to do all the things he was supposed to do. And he might tell me to think about that every time I get into a car.

Steve Swartz is the Public Information Officer for KDOT

Be a Winner On and Off the Field

by Turner Gill
Impaired driving continues to be a problem not only in Kansas, but nationwide. In Kansas, more than 100 persons annually lose their lives due to impaired driving. All of us can do our part to reduce this unnecessary carnage on our roadways. Designate a sober driver before you begin your activity. Sober does not mean, pick the friend that has had the least amount to drink, it means someone who has not consumed alcohol that evening. Other transportation alternatives are public transportation or call a cab.
On average, an arrest for a DUI will cost the offender about $5,000. These costs include fines, court costs, attorney fees, increased insurance premiums, lost wages and fees associated with an ignition interlock. These costs don’t include the potential expenses associated with a crash. An impaired driver in a crash could be facing the additional costs of hospital bills, vehicle replacement costs and the potential loss of life to another person.
As the head coach of a football team, I am tasked with not only preparing my players for the game of football, but the game of life. One of those lessons is to never drive impaired and don’t let your friends drive impaired. It can affect not only your life, but that of someone else you care about.
I am pleased to be a part of the effort to reduce senseless fatalities on our public roadways and would encourage not only my players, but all drivers to “Put the Brakes on Fatalities.”

Turner Gill is the football head coach at the University of Kansas.

The Dreaded Phone Call No Parent Wants To Get

by Julie Breitenstein
It was early on December 4, 2009, around 2AM, when that phone call happened to us. I remember answering the phone and hearing a man’s voice ask for Mr. Larry Breitenstein. I handed the phone to my husband and heard the man on the phone ask Larry if he was the father of Austin Breitenstein. At that moment, I knew there was something that had happened to my son.
 I remember laying back the covers, getting out of bed, and heading to the closet to get dressed while listening to the phone call. Larry hung up the phone and my question to him was, "Where is he? He is either in jail or he is in the hospital! Where is he?" Larry very calmly told me we needed to go to St. Francis Hospital.
I didn't panic until we got to the hospital where we were met by a Chaplain. I remember thinking, “Austin is dead! He is not alive!” Finally, the Chaplain took us upstairs to SICU and put us in a private room. We waited for another 20 minutes. A doctor came in and told us that Austin had been in a severe car accident and she did not know if he would survive. She told us he was still having CT scans done. Her next words were bone-chilling. She said Austin had received a brain injury, a fracture to his C2 and C3 vertebrae, a bruised lung and lots of road rash. Only time would tell if he would survive.
We called our daughter and she got to the hospital around 6:30 AM. A post was made on Facebook by 7:30, and by noon, there were so many kids at the hospital you could hardly get up and down the halls. The nurse we had was fantastic, she let every kid in to see Austin. They went in four at a time in 3 to 4-minute intervals. It was very important to me that every kid see him! I felt that if I could help just one kid from making the same mistake, I had done my job.
What I didn't know was the cause of the accident. Our very good friend (who was our insurance agent) asked if he could go to Austin's truck and get anything salvageable. We weren't sure what would be left since he had rolled it several times. I remember asking Wes to find his cell phone. I was on a mission to know what had contributed to his accident, and the cell phone told me what I needed to know. Austin had been texting!
I know this because of the time the last text came in and the time 911 was called. Austin was reading a text when he veered off the highway, and his reflex was to over-correct. Unfortunately, Austin had not buckled his seatbelt, so when the over-correction happened, he rolled his truck, which also catapulted him through the front windshield. Austin landed on his head!
Because of the impact to the back of his head, his brain ricocheted to the front left lobe of his brain causing severe damage. Austin ended up with a bi-lateral craniectomy (bone flaps on each side of his brain being removed) so his brain could swell. Austin should not have survived! Austin eventually was put on a ventilator to help him breathe, and later received a tracheotomy in SICU. Over a period of 26 days, Austin's heart failed him 3-4 times.
We are now almost 22 months out from when his accident happened, and I can tell you as a mom I would not wish this nightmare on anyone. Austin has had to re-learn everything. I mean everything - swallowing, eating, drinking from a straw, toileting, and walking! Austin continues to learn something new each day. He has days that are good, and he has days that can be extremely overwhelming. He does his best to make each day a new day and works very hard on trying to get his life back together. Austin was 19 when his accident happened; he is now 21.

There is nothing so important to be said in a text to give your life for. The next time you text behind the wheel of a 2,000 lb. vehicle, know you just may kill someone or even yourself! You may end up with a traumatic brain injury like Austin, or a spinal cord injury that will put you in a wheel chair for the rest of your life!