Barbara Lawlor, Gilpin County. Fog hovered over the parking lot next to the Gilpin High School football field last Thursday morning where two vehicles, one of which had been t-boned and one of which was a rollover, made up the scene of a horrific motor vehicle accident.
The first vehicle had four teens, a driver and three passengers, and the second vehicle contained GHS principal Alexis Donaldson and her daughter. It was a gruesome sight. There was blood everywhere. The male teen front seat passenger who had been partly ejected from the vehicle through the windshield lay across the hood, his brains spilling out onto the ground.
Inside the car, two girls in the back seat were trapped, both with injuries. In the second vehicle, principal Donaldson suffered a bad head injury and needed the Jaws of Life to be rescued.
It was close to 9 a.m., when the first emergency tone would go out all over Gilpin County, sending first responders to the scene, along with law and emergency agencies.
Alive at 25, the annual live re-enactment of a fatality accident is part of the Driver’s Awareness Course, which was hosted in Gilpin County, and caught the students’ attention with the graphic scenario.
Volunteers applied the wound makeup, the gashes and bruises and dripping blood as they made sure the student and teacher actors were comfortable and knew what their roles were.
Gilpin’s emergency tone sounded through the damp air as the GHS officer Lee Ramsey made the call: a MVA, two vehicles, one rollover, one t-boned, one DOA, two critical injuries. After the tone, a line of students, grades 9-12, walked out and circled the accident area. They were solemn as they realized what they were seeing: the gore and agony that is often the case in a serious accident.
The students watched as the officer went from car to car, talking to the victims, assessing and triaging the injuries. GHS junior Brekken Billman, acting as the driver who caused the accident, got out of the car in a state of shock, tried to get junior Cooper Lindburgh to respond, but realized it was no use. He ran to the other car and talked to principal Donaldson, but she was too injured. He returned to his car and sat with his head in his hands, obviously unable to accept what had happened.
As the sirens and lights headed down the hill to the scene of the accident, the actors began their performance. The victims screamed “Help me, help me.” The crackle of police and fire department scanners buzz through the air. The Gilpin County Ambulance pulled up and soon emergency workers were scrambling from their trucks, grabbing their equipment and beginning their jobs. There were concise, efficient and treating the exercise as if it were a real situation.
In fact, the situation appeared to be so real, that one student, a senior, began crying, tears streaming down her face, for real as she watched one of the teen girls extricated from the back seat of the car she was in.
“That’s my best friend,” she sobbed. “It may not be real, but it is real for me. I recently got a speeding ticket and seeing this makes me realize that this could happen to someone I know.”
A team of Central City Firefighters worked on getting patients out of the vehicles, and into the ambulances. Although the mock event called for a chopper transport, the fog made that impossible.
Gilpin County Coroner Zane Laubhan pronounced Cooper as deceased and the firefighters enclosed the teen in a body bag, which drew a gasp from the students as the zipper closed over his face.
Zane said that even though the accident wasn’t real, it was difficult to see. “It seems real to the kids, it is a shock to see it.”
The vehicles used for the scenario came from Allied Towing and had probably been impounded and never claimed. Central City Fire Protection District’s Gary Allen said he thought the whole exercise went pretty well. He explained that when the CC crew arrived, they realized the red trauma person in the back seat had to be treated first and to do that they had to go around the other patient. “That is about as real as it gets, having to make those decisions. But in real situations, you don’t know what is going to happen. We were going to have principal Donaldson choppered out, but the weather didn’t co-operate.”
Allen said it has been 34 years since Gilpin County lost a teen in a car accident.
Timberline Fire Protection District, Central City Fire Department, Black Hawk Fire Department, Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office, and Gilpin County Ambulance Service responded to the scene, which was organized by Diane.
When the firefighters finished with the Jaws of Life and all the patients were treated and loaded into the ambulances to be transported to the hospital, GS deputy Lee Ramsey called the students to gather round and watch what was to happen next.
A Colorado State Trooper addressed Brekken advising him of his rights and then questioning him about the events of the morning. Cooper was driving three other teens into the school parking area when he decided to have some fun before classes began and with some encouragement, set his car into a drift at the top of the hill near the football field.
The act of drifting has been around for a long time, originating in Japan but picked up by American drivers in the 1970s when it became a competitive sport and a stunt-man-like activity for teen drivers. It involves an act of the driver intentionally oversteering with a loss of traction in the rear wheels of all tires while maintaining control and driving the car through the entirety of a corner. It is caused when the rear slip angle is greater than the front slip angle to such an extent that often the front wheels are pointing in the opposite direction to the turn, an opposite lock or counter steering.
Popular in the 70s, drifting competitions were mostly in Japan, in the movie Fast and Furious, and in small coupes with all kinds of protective gear.
Brekken told the state patrolman they were just having some fun. The trooper read him his rights and searched him, patting him down, pulling out his pockets and checking the hood of his hoodie. He said the kids in the car were not wearing seat belts. He also had not been driving long enough to have passengers in the car.
The kids were on their way to school.
After handcuffing the teen, the trooper told Brekken, “You are the one that caused the crash. You killed somebody. You weren’t supposed to have passengers.”
The students watched Brekken being led to the waiting patrol car. They watched a consequence of an action unroll before them.
On that grim note, the teens headed into the auditorium where the second part of the program began.
While they waited, a group of young teens, not yet old enough to have a driver’s license, sat a table in the atrium and discussed what they had seen out in the parking lot.
“It means don’t drift downhill on a rainy day.”
“Don’t try to drift in a $100 car.”
“Don’t drive with other kids in the car if you haven’t had your license for more than six months.”
“Next month, I am getting my driver’s license and I would never want to be in a situation like that.
“Whenever you drive, make sure everyone has their seat belt on.”
After seeing the re-enactment, the students were about to hear the real life, heartbreaking account of a 14-year old teen who was killed in a car crash involved in drifting.
In August of 2009, Hunter Clegg was a passenger in a car driven by a friend of his brother, a 17-year-old who was heading down a winding mountain road. As he decided to drift around a curve, he lost control and hit a tree, the collision impacting the passenger seat, where Hunter was sitting. Everyone but Hunter walked away.
His heartbroken family was left to go on with a huge empty space in their life. His mother went into action, knowing that the slightest bit of knowledge about making driving decisions could have saved her son. Leeana Clegg is now the Education Outreach Co-ordinator of the Impact Teen Drivers for the National Safety Council for Northern California and beyond. Since her son’s death, she has become the reluctant expert on reckless and distracted driving. She has become a relentless safety advocate for Impact Teen Drivers, a non-profit organization to bring awareness and education to teens, parents, first responders, educators and entire communities.
Leeana’s goal in sharing Hunter’s story is to drive home the essential point that one small decision made while either driving or being a passenger in a car could be either life-changing or fatal.
“Hunter was an affectionate, kind, gentle soul, well behaved,” she told the Gilpin School students. “We did everything together as a family, always enjoyed the outdoors, lived a Huck Finn life-style, filled with adventure.” Hunter’s friend said Hunter wanted to be a rally driver, but that one never knew what to expect from him.”
On the night of the accident, Hunter’s parents had been away and received a phone call from their other son saying that Hunter was at the coroner’s office.
“How could this be?” his father agonized.
Hunter’s sister says the boy who was driving the car wasn’t a bad kid. He just wanted to have fun.”
Hunter’s mom remembers, “We never talked to Hunter about being a good passenger. None of his friends had driver’s licenses yet. We keep thinking about what it would be like if he were still here.”
Leeana focused on the part of learning how to be a good passenger, of having knowledge on how to make decisions, how important it is to understand the rules.
She says, “I believe that knowing Hunter’s story could be the impetus in taking a moment to consider the action a teen is about to take.”
Leeana says that the Graduated Driver License program could be the significant answer to arming teens with the experience of driving before obtaining full driving privileges.
There are three stages of the Colorado GDL program, beginning at the age of 15 with a learner driver’s education course. This stage requires 12 months, 50 supervised driving hours, and 10 hours of night driving. The stage culminates with a driving test.
The Intermediate Stage involves limiting supervised driving in high risk situations, no driving from midnight to 5 a.m.; no passengers, except family for the first six months and only one passenger in the second six months. The person occupying the seat beside you must have two years of driving experience.
The full privilege stage is when the teen gets a driver’s license. The legal limit of passengers in the vehicle is limited to the number of seat belts available.
Leeana asked the Gilpin students what they thought lethal distractions consisted of. The answers included: swords, grizzlies, crack, lip gloss, emboli and trying to down the last drop of a latte.
There are 4,000 teen driving deaths a year and 70 percent of them have nothing to do with alcohol or drugs. Most of them are due to distractions.
“Tell the passengers to sit down and shut up when you are behind the wheel,” advises Hunter’s mother.
Every time you get in a vehicle you need to think about making good choices. You won’t always get a second chance.
She told the teens to always have their cell phone in a safe place, easy to reach, that drivers pawing through purses or on the passenger floor of the vehicle in search of their phone is a common distraction and easily fixed.
When Leeana’s presentation was finished, she met with the teens and answered their questions, fielded their condolences. Her solemn but caring reception of the kids was a powerful, heartrending testimony to the suffering she has endured and to her goals of teaching kids to be aware of the potential danger of every decision made while driving.
The whole morning, the all-community program was an impressive example of how to get the attention of our local young drivers and give them information that makes an impact on their minds and hearts.
The event took place before Homecoming Weekend and the annual celebration was enjoyed safely and perhaps a bit more wisely than before being given the gift offered by the combined Gilpin County emergency services.
(Originally published in the October 5, 2017, print edition of The Mountain-Ear.)