They talk because they have to. They talk with hope that their stories will make a difference. They talk to keep their own children alive in spirit and other children alive in flesh.
Lori Popejoy, Cindy Hutchinson and Marty Siddall are parents brought together by tragedy. Last March they gathered in Jefferson City to testify before the Missouri House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee. They told their stories — of Adam, the socialite; Tommy, the shy one; and Paige, the dreamer — each dead in a car accident before graduating high school. They told of their tears and their pain and their hope. Together they articulated the need for laws that could help save our children.
LEARNER'S PERMITSAge to obtain a permit: 15 Before earning a restricted license, permit holders must: — Be at least 16 years old — Complete at least 40 hours of supervised driving, 10 of which must be at night — Hold the permit for at least six months Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Graduated driver’s licensesAge to obtain a restricted license: 16 Before earning a full license, teens must adhere to these restrictions: — No driving between 1 and 5 a.m. — No more than one passenger under 19 for the first six months; after that, no more than three under 19. Family members are exceptions. —Restrictions may be lifted once the driver turns 17 years, 11 months Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Risky driving— In 2005, 38 percent of men between 15-20 who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding; 24 percent had been drinking. — Male high school students are more likely to never or rarely wear a seat belt (12.5 percent) than females (7.8 percent). — In 2005, 50 percent of teen deaths from car crashes happened between 3 p.m. and midnight; 54 percent occurred on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What teens say about their driving— 56 percent talk on the phone; 13 percent text and drive — One in four self-described “aggressive drivers” report speeding by 20 mph or more — 70 percent said they feel unsafe when someone is driving, but only 45 percent speak up. — 46 percent of male drivers say they’re “better” drivers than females, but only 22 percent say they’re safer. Source: Survey of teen drivers by The Allstate Foundation
Talking and drivingSeventeen states have some type of cell phone restriction for drivers under the age of 18. — No cell phones for drivers younger than 18: California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Virginia. — No cell phones for drivers on a learner’s permit for intermediate license: Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas (first six months), Minnesota (first 12 months). — No cell phone for learner’s permit only: Colorado — No cell phone under the age of 19: Illinois Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
They will support renewed efforts to pass such laws this year, and they will keep talking — to lawmakers and at school assemblies and anywhere they think they can make a difference.
Motor vehicle crashes account for 36 percent of deaths among U.S. teens, making it the leading cause of death in that age group, according to a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even with Missouri’s strong graduated driver’s license laws, unintentional injuries, a majority of which are motor vehicle related, are the leading cause of death among Missouri teens. The 2006 Missouri Traffic Safety Compendium, compiled by the statistical analysis center for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, found, “In 2006 one person was killed or injured in young driver-related traffic crashes every 27.8 minutes in Missouri.” The young driver category includes accidents in which one or more of the drivers were under the age of 21. The average age of the driver in 2006 was 17.9 years.
State Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, is trying to combat those numbers by resubmitting two bills to the 2008 General Assembly that would make driver’s education affordable to all students and would prohibit cell phone use by drivers with an instruction permit or intermediate license. Baker says the original bill combined both provisions and started as one of the Missouri Parent Teacher Association’s legislative priorities. When she heard about it at a conference last year, she decided to promote it. Baker knew of several local teen fatalities, and her family was personally affected by a few of them.
“I learned firsthand how hard it is on the community to lose the promising young people in our lives,” Baker says.
When she first proposed new legislation last year, she met numerous reasons why it wouldn’t work. But she refused to give up. Instead, she brought together Popejoy, Hutchinson and Siddall. Although none of them had ever met, they shared the commonality of their children’s deaths and one by one joined Baker in telling their stories, and saying that something must be done to save the children.
Lori Popejoy describes her son Adam as a “totally and 100 percent normal teenage boy.”
He was an honor student at Hickman High School, active in his church, heavily involved in soccer and loved being around people. He got in trouble for doing “bone-headed” things and had a sense of humor his mom didn’t always appreciate.
It was just two days after Christmas in 2002 and Adam, a kid who routinely checked in when he had a change of plans, was late coming home. Two hours late. Lori and her husband Sid tried calling his phone repeatedly, realizing with each unanswered ring that something was wrong. They knew they should call the police, but that almost made it too real. Instead, Lori and her daughter Katie drove around looking for Adam while Sid stayed by the phone. When Lori and Katie got home the police car was in the driveway. Lori and Sid listened to the awful story of when and where and how Adam died. They learned that another girl, Amanda Henderson, had also died after being ejected from the car. They learned that Rhiannon Galloway, Adam’s girlfriend of a few months, survived, protected on her side by Adam’s body and in front by the air bag.
Adam had been 16 for two months. It was 4:30 in the afternoon when he, Rhiannon, and her best friend Amanda were on their way home from Amanda’s boyfriend’s house near Columbia’s Midway Expo Center. Adam pulled onto U.S. 40 in front of an oversized pick-up truck carrying construction equipment. He could have been distracted by a cell phone or by changing the radio or by talking to the two girls in the car with him. Whatever happened, he didn’t see it coming.
That night, after talking with the police, Lori, the working mother of 16-year-old Adam and 12-year-old Katie who considers herself a very strong woman, found herself crawling on the floor. The pain wouldn’t stop. Her baby boy was gone.
Cindy Hutchinson didn’t quite know what was going on when her husband David received the phone call saying their oldest son Tommy had been in a car accident.
She took the time to rearrange the evening’s car pool for her middle son Zack, drop her youngest son Andrew off at his aunt’s house, and only then questioned why they were told to go to the accident scene instead of the hospital.
Tommy had dinner with his family on Wednesday, June 11, 2003, before his best friend Brandon Wright–Hyler picked him up around 7 p.m. Tommy was a shy kid, content with one or two loyal friends he could depend on, and after meeting Brandon in the eighth grade the two were inseparable.
Cindy and David said goodbye to the boys as Brandon pulled out of the driveway. As avid video gamers, Tommy and Brandon decided to visit Brandon’s mom at her house south on U.S. 63 to borrow the Xbox for the evening. It was around 10 p.m., about 15 minutes after they left Brandon’s mom’s house, that she heard a bang. Assuming it was just another crash on 63, she called 911 and went outside to check it out. The neighbors stopped her before she could get close. It was Brandon and Tommy, who had stopped to talk to friends before leaving the neighborhood. They had been hit. Brandon’s mom called his grandmother who in turn called Tommy’s house and spoke to David on the phone.
Cindy and David didn’t get too far from the Grindstone Parkway exit on 63 when they saw the commotion. Sheriffs grabbed them the second they arrived and ushered them away from the accident site. All Cindy wanted to do was see her son, and she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let her. A female state trooper walked up to them and pulled Tommy’s ID from her pocket. David understood right away, but Cindy was still confused. The last thing she remembers is the trooper saying, “I’m sorry.”
Tommy, who was 17 at the time, was the oldest of the three Hutchinson boys. He was quiet, reserved and inherently smart. He enjoyed learning about history and physics, and he loved being the oldest brother. Despite his many interests, he had recently discovered a new passion for computer networking through the Columbia Public School’s Career Center. A quilt sewn by Tommy’s grandmother hangs on the wall of the Hutchinsons’ house. Made up of his old T-shirts, it shows Tommy for the Texas-bred, music-loving redhead that he was.
In the weeks after his death, Cindy went on a personal mission to put the pieces together. She gathered the police reports, talked to some of the emergency responders involved, and went to look at the wreckage of the car. Brandon was crossing the southbound lane of U.S. 63, trying to go north when the car was hit by a tractor-trailer. Both boys were pronounced dead on the scene. Police found no fault on the part of the other driver, and there was no trace of alcohol or drugs on either Brandon or Tommy.
Marty Siddall could tell you all about the why-aren’t-they-answering-their-phone gut feeling that something isn’t right.
He generally talked to his 17-year-old daughter Paige on the phone every day between 3:30 and 4 in the afternoon to check in. He happened to be on a golfing trip in Florida on Nov. 1, 2006, the day she didn’t answer, but being on Eastern time shouldn’t have changed things. He called around 4:45 his time, 3:45 hers, and got her voice mail.
One time zone over, Paige was on her way to work at Clover’s Natural Market. At about 3:45 p.m. she lost control of her car on Route K West, struck a mailbox and rebounded into the path of an oncoming car.
Although Marty thought it was a little unusual she didn’t answer, he figured she was just busy with something else. He called a friend in the meantime until his younger son Parker beeped in. Parker, 15 at the time, was riding passenger in a car with Paige’s longtime boyfriend as they drove home from Taco Bell. They drove right into the accident scene on Route K West and happened to be one of the first cars there, although a neighbor had already called 911.
Paige was unconscious and not breathing when firefighters arrived, and paramedics couldn’t resuscitate her. The driver of the other car suffered minor injuries and was transported to University Hospital for care.
Only the night before, on Halloween, Paige was trick-or-treating for the local food bank. Marty jokingly describes her as his “little hippie.” She was a vegetarian involved in Young Democrats at Rock Bridge High School who loved volunteering. Photo after photo in their family albums shows her flashing a peace sign. He doesn’t ever remember her using the word hate.
The thing is, Marty says, Paige had a habit of talking on her cell phone while driving because she always wanted to stay in touch. He isn’t sure the role his phone call or any phone call might have played in the accident, and he won’t allow guilt to consume him. Paige’s phone and purse were found in the backseat, although they could have been thrown back there during one of the two collisions. Perhaps the accident happened just before he called, perhaps just after, perhaps as she reached for the phone. Whatever happened that afternoon, she somehow got distracted, overcorrected, and lost her life.
And Marty lost his little girl.
Lori Popejoy, Cindy Hutchinson and Marty Siddall’s lives crossed paths a year ago in the office of state Rep. Judy Baker.
They were there for the same reason — to enlighten parents on the risks associated with young drivers. They all knew about Baker’s bill to impose stricter laws on teenage drivers and wanted to know what they could do to help.
Baker’s original bill would have required all school districts to offer a driver’s education course to students 15 and older and would have prohibited cell phone use by temporary permit and intermediate license holders. It included initiatives to encourage students to take the course and a Driver’s Education Fund to offset fees for low-income families. It passed committee almost unanimously, with the help of the parents’ testimony, but failed to reach the House floor.
Despite her disappointment, Baker approached Department of Education officials directly. They have since developed a $150 online driver’s education course through the Virtual Instruction Program. She resubmitted the legislation this session as two separate bills. She estimates that $1 million could get the low-income drivers ed program launched, and that the money could possibly be raised through auto insurers and public safety groups. She also wants students to be able to get academic credit for taking the course. She plans to argue for cell phone restrictions separately.
When Popejoy looks at the statistics about teen drivers, she wonders when people are going to get outraged. “We really have to make changes as a society to how we view education about driving because it has gotten more complicated to drive in most of our communities,” she says.
Popejoy directs her focus toward the driver’s education aspect of the bill, but Siddall’s heart is in the cell phone restrictions. “The bottom line is that your kid is less likely to listen to you as a parent than to the law,” he says. Although Paige was a great kid, he couldn’t fully impress on her the risks that came with talking on her phone while driving.
In 2005, the Allstate Foundation, the independent charitable organization funded by The Allstate Corp., found that 56 percent of young drivers use cell phones while driving. Seventeen states currently have cell phone restrictions for young drivers, and some, like New York, restrict cell phone use for all drivers.
Although Hutchinson’s son Tommy didn’t have his driver’s license or a cell phone when the accident happened, she says she is behind the bill because it will affect every person who drives and therefore shares the road with teenage drivers.
For now, these three parents are trying to find in life what Hutchinson calls “a new normal.”
They keep the memory of their children alive through school outreach programs, scholarships and public service campaigns.
Popejoy brought the ADAM program (Attentive Driving Always Matters) to Columbia after working with a Minnesota mother who also lost a son named Adam in a car accident. Every winter semester, Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools hang banners about safe driving, and Popejoy shares Adam’s story with the students. She also talks to students at Jefferson Junior High School and at events around Columbia. She tells young people what happens to your body when it is hit by something going 60 mph, what the police say to your family when you die, how it affects your friends and your siblings and your parents. She tries to break through their youthful sense of invincibility by getting them to understand it is just an illusion.
“You can really get to kids that way,” she says. “It is interesting when you have a silent auditorium of 600 16-year-olds.”
Popejoy’s younger daughter Katie is now 16 and recently started driving. Although Lori and Sid Popejoy were pretty leery at first, and placed a no-passenger restriction on her for the first six months, they knew that not letting her drive wasn’t the answer. All that would do is extend Katie’s adolescence and inexperience when she moved away from home.
Cindy Hutchinson continues to find comfort in The Compassionate Friends support group for families who lose a child. She attends the group’s candle lighting ceremony every December in Jefferson City. Zack used poetry as an outlet for his emotions after Tommy’s death. He has since turned some of it into music and even performed one of his songs at the high school talent show. Andrew was only 9 when the accident happened, but Tommy had already instilled in him a love of history. The Hutchinsons still laugh at the story of Andrew telling his first-grade class about the black plague after Tommy had talked about it the night before during dinner.
The Hutchinsons also used Tommy’s death to set up a scholarship through the Career Center, the place that helped him find his passion. Every year they look over applications, sit through the interview process and select a couple of candidates who can use the scholarship to pay for the cost of testing and certification necessary in many fields.
“It is a way to keep his memory alive because you just don’t want people to forget,” Hutchinson says. Tommy’s death changed her family completely. It forced her other two boys to grow up really fast, without their older brother. Zack didn’t even have a desire to drive until he was 17, and when he did get his permit Cindy and David Hutchinson enrolled him in a private driver’s education course and told him to stay off the highways.
Siddall says as his “little hippie,” one of Paige’s favorite places in Columbia was Peace Park on the northwest corner of the MU campus. Just before she died some trees had been cut down, so a new one was planted in her honor by the creek. It is now regularly adorned with pink balloons, flowers and notes from family and friends. The Paige Siddall Memorial Fund seeks to rebuild the nearby bridge in Paige’s honor and ensure perpetual upkeep of her favorite place. Online gifts can be left by designating the Paige Siddall Memorial at formizzou.missouri.edu. The plaque in the ground carries Paige’s favorite John Lennon quote:
“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”
Lori Popejoy, Cindy Hutchinson, and Marty Siddall will never forget their children.
Their biggest fear is that other people will forget and somehow their children’s lives will have less meaning. So they talk and legislate and grieve and cling onto that unbreakable parent-child bond in hopes of saving others.