Seatbelt advocate relives tragic end, beginning of campaigns

Note: Mary Hunter, manager of the Idaho Office of Highway Safety recently distributed the latest edition of Quick Notes to highway safety partners and individuals interested in improving safety on Idaho highways. The message coincides with the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of Patrick Smith and explains how it inspired Patrick’s mother Phyllis Easteppe to become a vocal advocate for seat belt use.

Quick Notes
Mary Hunter
Highway Safety Manager

“(Easteppe) wrote a story, see below, to thank ISP Trooper Rocky Gripton for the care she received during this event. Today is the right day to share this story.

Phyllis called me about two weeks later to see what she could do help prevent this from happening to other families. I was stunned by the pain in her story and remembered how I felt when my mother died five years earlier in a traffic crash.

Little did I know that 10 years into the future, we would still be working together to reduce needless traffic deaths.

Following Patrick’s death, Phyllis quit her job with the federal government to focus her time and energy into launching a mother's campaign to strengthen Idaho’s seat belt law. In addition, Phyllis and her family founded SAFE – Seatbelt Awareness for Everyone.

Through SAFE, she began speaking throughout the state on the importance of wearing a seat belt. SAFE consisted of her son’s high school friends who devoted time to spreading the seat belt message to other high schools, and in turn, getting teens to educate their peers and adults.

Each year, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation honors 10 to 12 people or organizations nationwide, by presenting the National Lifesaver’s Award at the nation’s premier traffic safety conference, the Annual Lifesaver’s Conference.

Phyllis’s award nomination was submitted by Region 10 of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and she was selected from a pool of thousands of nominations for individuals and organizations who exemplify the highest standards of achievement in the field of traffic safety. Her citation reads in part, “For extraordinary personal and tireless dedication as founder of Safety Awareness For Everyone (SAFE) and for raising Idaho’s consciousness of seat belt use.”

Thanks to the work of Phyllis and you, and smart driving choices, the number of unbelted fatalities has dropped from 149 in 2001, the year her son died, to 73, less than half, in 2010. This story below is a big thanks to Trooper Gripton for his compassionate help to Phyllis and her family. And a big thanks to all that has been done to cut the number of suffering families in half!

How I Met the Man

Phyllis Easteppe, April 7, 2011
Forevermore a seat belt advocate

We met under the worst possible conditions; the man and I. He explained to me, a mother in shock and disbelief, how my son and my son’s best friend died. He tried to explain that my son, who left the night before in a car with his friends to go cosmic bowling, would never be coming home again.

I called the man repeatedly as more and more questions surfaced in my foggy mind. Every time the man answered all of my questions. Sometimes it was the same questions again and again, as I tried to grip in my mind the events that had happened. Two boys died and the third was fighting for his life. I had to know everything about what happened. Why, how and what could have or should have been done differently.

The boys were good boys. There was no drinking and no drugs, so how, why? It was a single car roll over crash. But, what caused it? How did they die? Why did they die?

The man met me at the crash site. He explained how the car brakes were applied and showed me the tire skid marks. He explained how a tire had ventured into a cattle grate and how the passenger door was smashed in over the front seat passenger by a railroad tie. He explained how the car flipped end to end then rolled approximately 8 times before coming to rest on its roof. He told me how the neighbor heard noises and called the police and how the neighbor learned it was a car crash and so she brought down quilts for all three boys to keep them warm.

The man then explained to me that the boy in the passenger seat, who was taken by Life Flight, had stayed in the car as it rolled over so he had a good chance. The driver was also taken by Life Flight but his chances were not good. The driver did not stay in the car, he was thrown around inside the car multiple times before finally being thrown out of the car. He had multiple life threatening injuries.

The third boy was in the back seat. He was thrown from the car while it flipped end to end. He went out the rear window and was hit by the trunk lid during the end to end flips. He landed 120 feet from where the man believed he came out of the car.
Repeatedly the man listened to my questions and those from the other boys’ family members. The final reality, the man said after the investigation was complete, was that the crash was survivable.

Everyone could have lived through this type of crash. Nothing entered into the cabin of the vehicle. If the three young men had stayed in the car, all three could have lived. Those who lost their lives died because they were not protected by the cars structure unlike the one who lived. The other two boys that didn’t survive were thrown around in the car and then thrown from the car into the cold wet dirt. That is where my son died.

The man was the investigating officer. He too is a father. He is my hero. He took care of my son, my son’s best friend and the other dear friend. The man took care of all of the friends and family of the young men in this car. The man treated us all with respect, kindness and compassion.

After the man’s explanation of the what, why and how of the crash, it was clear the two young men died because they were not wearing their seatbelts. No other reason or explanation, nothing. Just no seatbelt. That was 10 years ago today.

Since that life altering day, many others including myself, have tried to change the seat belt law making it a primary offense. We’ve tried to change the law in order to make more people buckle those belts so they do not have to learn how seat belts save lives and how not wearing them costs lives. The news reports the crashes and how many fatalities occur but if the man reported it, everyone would know many lives have been lost because the seatbelt were never worn. Seat belts save lives.

Who is the man, the officer, my hero, the one who helped me understand the most difficult thing in my life, and then inspired me to make changes and prevent it from happening to others? The man is Trooper Rocky Gripton, Idaho State Police. Thank you Rocky and may you always be blessed. I will never forget “the man” and all you have done for me. He is an example of what our law enforcement officers across this state do for the citizens of Idaho every day.

Published 4-15-2011