Today I am sharing a story that was shared on the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s blog at the end of October. I believe it carries an important message as of today we have had 339 deaths on our roadways in Minnesota.
“The chairs stretch off into the distance of an empty field – rows and rows of them. They look innocent enough, with snow falling gently on their black surfaces, and you wonder what they’re there for. A wedding, perhaps? Some sort of graduation? But their true purpose isn’t one of celebration, but of tragedy: Each of the over 300 chairs represents a person who has died on Minnesota roads so far this year. Three hundred empty chairs. Three hundred lives cut short. Thousands of broken hearts.
Sarah Delaney steps up to the podium in front of this haunting display and struggles for composure. She’s an EMT – has been for 15 years – so she’s seen a lot of awful things. But the Jan. 1 call she speaks of will never leave her, because that crash changed her life forever. Her anguished voice portrays the horror of the scene: the passenger in the front seat clearly dead, the driver still clinging to life. Her medical training kicks in, but as she helps the driver, she glances again at the passenger, and the awful truth begins to dawn. Those tousled, unwieldy curls are familiar. The bracelets on the lifeless wrist, too. The dead passenger is her own son.
May you never know the anguish of celebrating your child’s 18th birthday without him. May you never look with dread toward the upcoming holidays – his favorite Thanksgiving dish uneaten; his most desired Christmas gift unopened. And yes, life is a chancy thing. But those 300 chairs? They didn’t have to be there. Because every one of the traffic deaths they represent was preventable.
As of this writing, the number of traffic deaths on Minnesota roads has risen to 316. There were 298 at this same time last year. Ninety of these deaths are alcohol related (93 last year), 25 are distraction-related (33 last year), but the last two stats are almost incomprehensible. At this time last year, 63 people had died in speed related crashes. This year’s number is 95. And this year’s unbelted statistic is similarly shocking: Last year’s 58 has risen to 80 this year.
It's hard to say why these numbers have increased so sharply. Roads made empty by the COVID-19 shutdown have tempted motorists to 100 mph speeds and above, but not everything is that cut and dried. What is clear is that we can prevent these tragedies. But it takes all of us. We all have to wear our seat belts. We all have to find a sober ride. We all have to put away distractions and obey the speed limit. We all have to commit to safe, smart driving, or we condemn more mothers like Sarah to unspeakable grief.
So when that grieving mother looks at the camera and, despite her torment, begs you and every other Minnesotan to “slow down, put your phone away, drive sober, buckle up, and concentrate on the road,” are you really going to deny her?