Gridlock Guy: Forces unite after driving deaths stir Lakeside High community

When one high school student dies - for any reason - it is a tragedy. When one dies in a drunk and/or reckless driving crash, whether their fault or not, it is a travesty. When five from the same school die in wrecks in six months, there is not a word to properly describe it.

This is what students and families at DeKalb County’s Lakeside High school, my alma mater, are experiencing.

A late night Labor Day weekend high speed crash sent a car off of an I-85 overpass in Gwinnett, killing three. Another late night joyride caused a drunk driver to crash, killing a passenger less than a mile from the campus in late February. Just weeks later, another high speed wreck claimed the life of a junior just a few miles away from the school.

Each happened in the wee hours of the morning and involved high speeds. The lives of the survivors who held fault in the wrecks changed forever. The families and friends of all involved are forever scarred - all in that same North DeKalb community.

I co-lead a sophomore boys’ small group at Decatur City Church and started to hear from parents after the February tragedy. When the March incident occurred, I hopped on the phone with Kristen Bryant, one of their moms, who experienced this loss in her own family.

On a Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving in 2001, Bryant’s brother, Michael, saw his parents were in deep conversation and decided that was a chance to take his cousin on a short ride around the block. He returned safely and another cousin wanted a ride. They approached a sharp turn and Michael lost control, hit a tree, and died.

Michael had attempted to put on his seatbelt while the car was in motion, but had failed. The crash partially ejected him and the vehicle crushed him. He was traveling no more than 35 mph and was sober. And he was very close to the house. His inexperience just 10 days after his 16th birthday, plus his failure to buckle up were the main culprits in his demise.

“Through it all, ‘angels’ appeared in our lives to help us put one foot in front of the other,” Bryant told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. “Many of them held stories we were unaware of before this tragedy. The people who shared their stories of loss and overcoming the grief and pain from losing a loved one provided us with hope. Before my brother’s obituary was written, my mom bravely and unwaveringly committed to starting a teen driving program. She could not let this happen to another family without doing something to help young drivers understand the importance of wearing a seatbelt and driving safely.

“As we formed the nonprofit, people miraculously came into our lives to help us create and launch the initiative. My mom spoke all over the country and advocated to lawmakers in Washington, DC about the critical need of improving driver’s licensing laws for teens and the overall need for additional education for teenagers before they operate a car. One of our nonprofit’s biggest initiatives was our billboards in Chattanooga, Knoxville and North Georgia with a photo of my brother and the words, ‘I didn’t. You can. Buckle Up.’

“Over the years,” Bryant recalled, “Our family received messages from countless young people who said that they were wearing their seatbelt and survived a crash, and that they credited Michael, the billboards, and/or our nonprofit for reminding them to always buckle up.”

Bryant’s story unearths two truths: Teens are in danger behind the wheel - even if they are not really misbehaving. And grief can be a major spark for hope and positive change. The rash of student deaths at Lakeside prompted Bryant to reach out to me to brainstorm how to reach students in DeKalb County. I told her about Mike Lutzenkirchen.

The grief-hope-strength model drives Lutzenkirchen and his family, who campaign across the country for safe, sober, undistracted teen driving. Since September, he has been using the triple-fatal Lakeside student crash as a centerpiece in his nationwide assemblies.

Two years ago, Lutzenkirchen partnered with GDOT to secure more resources for these events he holds at state colleges and high schools. After the most recent of these Lakeside High deaths, Lutzenkirchen heard from both his GDOT contact and his daughter’s co-worker, a Lakeside parent. Parents and teachers had reached out to GDOT. GDOT came to Lutzenkirchen: they needed to go to Lakeside and quickly.

“The reason we were able to get this together so quickly was the partnership as a non-profit that we have with a government entity,” Lutzenkirchen said.

Lutzenkirchen’s Lutzie 43 Foundation, founded after a drunk driving crash killed his son, former Auburn football star Phillip Lutzenkirchen, scrambled to have the assembly at Lakeside early in this past week, so students could hear his message in time for Spring Break. Of course, that magical second semester week off is notorious for partying, alcohol abuse, and deadly wrecks.

A group of concerned parents reached out to Lakeside High principal Susan Stoddard, Lutzenkirchen said. The parents told her that while there were plenty of tributes to the fallen students, there needed to be something shared with the rest of the students that is more preventative.

Lakeside gathered almost all of its 2,200 kids into the gym for the one-hour assembly last Tuesday. Stoddard, GDOT, and Lutzenkirchen all addressed the Viking body.

And because of Spanish-speaking teachers and GDOT employees, Lutzie 43′s handout cards lanyards, and presentation were all available bilingually.

43 was Phillip Lutzenkirchen’s jersey number at Auburn and the foundation created the process “43 Key Seconds” for drivers to pause and check for several things: a clear head (sober), clear hands (no holding phones), clear eyes (able to see and stay awake), and click it (belts buckled), before turning the key. That modicum is all over those cards and lanyards.

It’s all common sense, yet many of us fall short of these goals often.

23 years removed from her loss, others’ pain prompted Bryant to spring into action again. On top of the tips for safe driving she and others offer teens, Bryant adds another reason for safeguards.

“My advice to teenagers today is that I want you to know how much you are loved by your family, your friends, your teachers, and others around you. If something happens to you, your family will never get over losing you because you are so precious.”

Bryant’s oldest son is 15 and will drive later this year. He fittingly is named Michael.

A small error in a car can snuff out precious life and that doesn’t have to be at high speeds, after dark, while distracted, or when inebriated. But those exponentially increase the chances for tragedy, as the Lakeside family has unfortunately learned.

Thankfully, a coalition of parents, government, and survivors went to work and got Lutzenkirchen’s story quickly to those students.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.





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