by Courtney Merriman
(This is the sixth in a month-long series of guest blog posts from National Safety Council survivor advocates. We are sharing our stories in honor of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.)
“Come to Papa,” the text message said.
When I read my aunt’s text, I inherently knew something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t because she was asking me to come to my grandfather’s house on a Sunday evening—that was entirely normal. We take advantage of every opportunity we can to be together as a family. I think it was the way she’d written it. Its brevity. Its directness.
I swung open Papa’s kitchen door, as I’d done thousands of times, and noticed that no one was in the kitchen, a very odd sight. The kitchen was usually so full of life—cooking, laughing, hugging, music, the occasional dance party. I turned to look into the dining room, and I saw my aunt from behind. She was sitting there surrounded by the rest of our family. As she slowly turned around to look at me, I caught the first glimpse of a horror that has stayed in her eyes ever since. Then she walked toward me, saying things I couldn’t make sense of: “…church…road…walking…crosswalk…loud…screaming…Papa.”
What did it all mean? I looked around the room and locked eyes with another one of my dear aunts, who said, simply, “He’s gone.”
Wait, what? I thought. No, no, no, this can’t be. Papa died?
“Court, he was hit by a tractor-trailer,” she said.
In a single moment our hearts crumbled into a million irreparable pieces.
Papa and my aunt had gone to a dinner at our local Catholic church, which Papa had attended all his life. It was the same church where, in 1889, his mother was baptized—she'd earned the proud distinction of being its first. After they left the dinner, they walked across a marked, lit crosswalk. Papa was three-quarters of the way across, just two steps from the other side, when he was hit and killed.
Eight months later we learned that the driver had been talking on his cell phone for 24 minutes leading up to the moment of impact.
My grandfather was a dairy farmer all his life. He worked from sunup 'til sundown. Even into old age, Papa was incredibly spry. He rode snowmobiles and four-wheelers. He chopped and stacked his own firewood, even on the day he died. He was the kind of guy who would buy a used car for the single mother who lived down the road so she would have a way to get to work. The kind who’d befriend the cashier at his local Burger King, and after learning the cashier was saving up for a snowblower, buy him one, explaining to him that it was one less thing he’d have to worry about—that he could spend his hard-earned money on something else.
He believed that we were each other’s keeper, and he took that role to heart. It was evidenced in everything he did. If there was a need, he would fill it, and he would do it without fanfare or discussion.
The life of this good, honorable, decent, God-fearing, community and family man is gone because someone driving an 18-wheeler decided to talk on a phone. Tragically, my aunt witnessed it all.
For my family, distracted driving is so much more than a buzzword. It is what took the most precious man we’ve ever known. No text, e-mail, social media post or telephone call is worth the possibility of ending your own life or another’s.
In 2014 alone in this country, 3,179 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. That’s over three thousand families left to grapple with the loss of a loved one due to something completely senseless. That year, another 431,000 people were injured in a crash involving a distracted driver—and those are just the ones we know about. Oftentimes, these crashes go uninvestigated, and the correlation to distracted driving is never made.
Here’s the good news: These deaths are 100% preventable. Human behavior is within our control, and this doesn’t have to be the epidemic it is. We can change this. You don’t have to lose the Papa in your life—someone you love with all your heart and soul—the way we lost ours. If we all commit to drive free of distraction, we will be doing our part to curb what is killing the people we love. The number of fatalities from distracted driving were projected to be even higher last year. But I believe, if we live as each other’s keeper, we can beat this.
I hope that because I’ve shared my family’s story, you and your family will never have one of your own to tell.
Courtney Merriman is a partner at Barclay Damon, LLP law firm in Syracuse, New York. She is a victim's advocate for the National Safety Council. She hopes that because she's sharing the story that changed her life and the lives of her large, loving and supportive family, other people's driving behaviors will change too.