An emotional story of loss told by a mother helped Manitoba Public Insurance launch a new campaign against distracted driving in front of about 150 Grade 12 students at Collège Sturgeon Heights Collegiate on April 2.
The campaign, Your Last Words, includes a TV advertisement and website (yourlastwords.ca) where visitors can enter their name and last text message and see them put on a gravestone.
The stark reality of the gravestone imagery was made clear to the students by Shelley Forney, a Colorado member of advocacy group Focus Driven which seeks to eliminate cell phone use by drivers.
Forney’s daughter Erica died in 2008 after being hit by a distracted driver.
"Please spread this message today. (Do) you know how hard this is for me, to share our story over and over and over again? You know why I do it? Because your lives are just as precious as my daughter’s is. Your parents would miss you. Their lives would be impacted," Forney said.
The impact of such a loss was made clear to the students by Forney’s emotional description of her daughter’s death.
Erica was riding her bike home from school on Thanksgiving Day. Forney said the family was getting ready to go visit relatives.
"We were looking forward to spending our time with our cousins and staying up and playing games and making memories."
"Fifteen pedals from our front door she was hit," by a 36-year-old neighbour, Forney said.
The driver "didn’t know she hit her. Do you know why she didn’t know she hit her? Her eyes were on her lap. She was finishing a call."
Erica hit the windshield of the car and landed on her head five metres from where the crash happened, Forney said. The fluid pressure in Erica’s brain became tenfold what it should have been, and two days later she died.
"My precious baby, her brain was trying to squeeze out of her head…she’s gone, decaying six feet under a hole in the ground all because of one person’s choice to make a call."
"Erica was a comedian. She was an artist, people wanted to buy her art at nine…she wanted to be on Broadway. She wanted to live in a penthouse in New York. She was fierce. She had a life to live, and she was living it."
Forney pleaded with the students to not only choose not to use phones while driving, but to be a "good passenger" and speak up when others are doing it.
After her presentation Forney was approached by several students. After talking to one student – Erica Preston – they shared a hug.
"It hit home," Preston said, explaining her father and younger sister were killed by distracted driving seven years ago.
"I was actually holding back the tears."
Forney said she’s given about 200 presentations since her daughter’s death, and it never stops being emotional for her.
"I try to hold it together, I do, but at the same time I say, you know what, if I cry maybe someone will connect with me because I did, because I let myself give a piece of my heart to them."
MaryAnn Kempe, MPI’s vice-president of community and corporate relations, told the students that 25% of road deaths in Manitoba – 160 since 2005 – were due to distracted driving, and that they are 23 times more likely to crash if they text while driving.
"I challenge you, if you are a texting driver today, I hope you won’t be tomorrow after hearing today’s presentation," Kempe said.