Gridlock Guy: Tragedy birthed a crusade and a fresh approach to teen driving

A voice boomed over a PA system in the University of West Georgia Coliseum, so much so that the man speaking only held the mic belly-high. He didn’t stand behind the podium, as he addressed a group of a couple of hundred high schoolers. Mike Lutzenkirchen paced back and forth in front of the teens, often polling them and inviting hands to be raised. Lutzenkirchen has given this speech, he estimates, 400 times and to over 250,000 people.

This is the zeal that a father with a mission shows. It’s a tenacity that horrible loss bred.

“It is not a right to drive a vehicle is it? It’s a privilege,” Lutzenkirchen rhetorically asked early in his 40 minute keynote at the Safe Driving Summit, the first in a partnership with the Lutzie 43 Foundation, of which Lutzenkirchen is the director, and GDOT. On the eve of Distracted Driving Awareness Month last Thursday, the message couldn’t be clearer or more timely. “There’s so much responsibility to [driving].”

The Lutzenkirchen family knows this better than most. On June 30th, 2014, Lutzenkirchen, his wife, and two of his three daughters returned to their Cobb County home after church to find a sticky note on their door with a number to call. Lutzenkirchen called this mysterious number, which led to his dialing another, which then delivered the absolute worst news: Philip Lutzenkirchen, their only son/brother, died in a car crash the night before.

“I watched my wife drop to her knees,” he vividly recalled to the suddenly-awakened teens. One daughter screamed. The other turned white. He then called his third daughter, Abby, who was on a University of Alabama soccer bus from Jacksonville. Abby was in attendance for this March 31st speech.

Lutzenkirchen asked the Carroll County high schoolers, handpicked by their schools as newly licensed or permitted drivers, to consider what is going through peoples’ minds when they have to process news like this. The schools were supposed to pick students they thought were most likely to bring the message back to their classmates. What a story they would have to deliver.

Philip Lutzenkirchen was a standout Auburn football player, who caught the game-winning 2010 Iron Bowl touchdown that sent the Tigers to the title game and then the school’s first national title in 50 years. Lutzenkirchen got injured and couldn’t pursue an NFL career, but had settled into a job and was partying with some friends on June 29th, 2014.

After a night of drinking on a farm, they decided to pile into a 2006 Chevy Tahoe and go to a LaGrange convenience store. Three of the four passengers neglected wearing safety belts. The drunk driver missed a turn, ran into a ravine, launched the SUV, and Philip flew across the backseat and out the window.

Lutzenkirchen had nearly undivided attention. But he kept jostling between this grave story and interactive lightheartedness. He prodded them to awkwardly raise their hands about distracted driving and seatbelt use.

“If Philip had had a seatbelt on, I likely wouldn’t be in Carrollton, Georgia today,” he said, noting how this crash saw the horrible mix of both impaired and distracted driving. “On the accident report, my son is a stick figure with his name, Phillip Lutzenkirchen - dead on arrival.”

Philip was much more than a drawing or a statistic, both Lutzenkirchen and a video montage before his speech conveyed. Phillip elected to skip out being a likely third-round NFL draft pick to play his senior year of college and get his degree. His family says he repeatedly told people that he wanted his impact to be how he helped people and not his stats.

The students saw testimonies of the many people touched while he was still living, including kids. He had no idea how his legacy would impact people later.

The Lutzie 43 Foundation is named after Philip’s nickname and Auburn jersey number and the organization adopts Auburn’s blue and orange motif. Their big push is “43 Seconds” that a driver should pause before driving. During that time, Lutzenkirchen explained, drivers should check to see if they have a clear head (not impaired), clear hands (not holding their phone), and clear eyes (eyes on the road). Then they are supposed to click in - put on their seatbelt.

The students at this summit, the first such event of many that Lutzenkirchen and GDOT want to do, were divided into four groups for 25 minute breakout sessions. Each student attended each session: tractor trailer drivers and trucks showing the limitations of the big rigs and their blind spots, law enforcement officers giving their tales of the road, insurance company State Farm (an event sponsor) explaining how teens’ bad driving can financially hurt their families, and medical professionals with some stand-in students acting as car crash patients who also demonstrated what an active car crash scene in an E.R. Is like.

Lutzenkirchen explained that he doesn’t think “scared straight” programs resonate with kids, but he does want to convey the reality of the responsibility and the consequences of driving to them.

“If I had to pick one word for you to take away today: courage,” Lutzenkirchen stated with measured pauses to this crowd. “Courage is waiting until your passengers put their seatbelts on.”

Asking people in a vehicle to do the right thing often takes more courage than one doing so themselves. There is something far harder about correcting another person.

“It’s okay to be unwired - especially in your car,” Lutzenkirchen said, before issuing students a 21-day challenge to not touch their phone behind the wheel. There was a murmur of resignation in the crowd. “Create your own laws,” Lutzenkirchen said.

And he made a point to say to the crowd that the laws set a low bar. He even went out of his way to hold this first Safe Driving Summit in Carrollton, since it is only 20 minutes from Alabama, where holding a phone and driving is still legal.

Speaking after the speech, Lutzenkirchen said that he thinks the best way to turn the trend of rising road fatalities is for private companies and citizens themselves to promote a culture of driving safety. He thinks the mistake all parties make is just looking to the government to make laws.

When asked why and how he was able to maintain the strength for this crusade after his son’s tragedy, he made it simple: it’s what his son would have wanted. He believes one day in heaven that Philip will hug him and say, “Job well done.”

As this group of Carroll County high schoolers prepared Spring Break, they walked away with heaviness in their minds. But they also walked away knowing that even good folks, or stellar ones like Philip Lutzenkirchen, can make one set of mistakes that have horrid consequences.

This group of kids also walks away with ambition and a mission higher than just obeying rules. That’s exactly what the Lutzenkirchen family and GDOT believe will save lives.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.





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