Tragedies on the Roadway
June 5, 2018
Among the unkempt grass and trees along the side of Cedar Hill Street, two modest wooden crosses poke out of the ground.
These two crosses represent two lives lost: Meghan and Shauna Murphy. The Murphy sisters both lost their lives in a car crash on October 13, 2005. As as result, the Murphy Sisters foundation was created and is dedicated to safe-driving education and awareness, thus becoming a symbol of the potential consequences of unsafe driving.
“Words cannot describe the overwhelming sense of loss from losing not one, but two children,” father Chris Murphy said. “Every day is filled with a sense of loss.”
The Murphy sisters’ tragedy is no isolated incident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were an average of 17,250 car accidents per day in the United States in 2015.
“There is no entitlement for you to live the next day,” Murphy said. “Taking unnecessary risks will cost you your life.”
According to Detective Sergeant Brian Griffin, who is involved with accidents such as the Murphy sisters’ on a regular basis while on duty, these sorts of events have a “huge impact” on both the community and himself.
“Fortunately we don’t deal with fatalities too often, but when we do, it impacts the community and first responders immensely,” Griffin said.
Many students have been affected by dangerous driving, either through first hand experience or that of someone close to them.
While riding the bus to her rugby game her sophomore year, senior Lucy Huddart described being hit head-on in a collision that took one life and resulted in several minor injuries including concussions and neck injuries. Huddart herself suffered from bruised ribs, preventing her from playing rugby for weeks following the accident.
“I was asleep, but I woke up on the floor like ‘what just happened?’” Huddart said. “But everyone was screaming and people were saying to call 911 and we all waited outside and everyone was crying. Our coach at the time, coach Laurie, is a nurse, so she was in the car with the other [driver], like putting her head through the driver’s seat window. They had to use the jaws of life to get her out and she actually ended up dying.”
After the crash, Huddart explained that the entire team was “devastated emotionally” and that she would “cry about it all the time.” The trauma of the accident continued to affect the team.
“We were all scared to take the bus afterwards,” Huddart said. “We didn’t have an away game for a while. The first one we had we were all wearing seatbelts and stuff, even though you never wear seatbelts on school buses.”
Even minor accidents can leave a lasting impact on the people involved. Junior Natalie Bourque still remembers being in a car crash with her grandmother in fourth grade, and although no one died in that accident, the shock and trauma of that experience continues to shape her perspective on driving now.
“I think the risk is much more real to the people who have experienced it, obviously, but it’s hard to see [dangerous driving] as such a common thing,” Bourque said. “It’s no big deal to them because they haven’t experienced it.”
While minor accidents can be scary, lives are permanently altered in more major accidents. Massachusetts state trooper Peter English’s primary responsibilities are road patrol and responding to accidents, which he says usually happen in his patrol zone “about once a week”. However, this number varies greatly; once he saw six in one day.
“One of my first fatals was an 18 year old kid,” English said. “His first name was Mike, riding with his girlfriend, she was 17, and her 14 year old sister was in the back seat. He went off the road and rolled the car over several times.”
Before crashing, Mike was travelling above the speed limit and was under the influence of marijuana. He was not wearing a seatbelt.
English and other first responders found him unconscious, “hanging into the backseat over the front seat. He never regained consciousness.”
The 14 year old was ejected from the backseat out the back window, but “was not hurt, amazingly enough.” Mike’s girlfriend found herself trapped in the wreckage; responders had to use the jaws of life to get her out.
“When she was passing out from the pain it was blissful,” English said. “When she woke up, there were blood-curdling screams, she was in so much pain. I can still hear them 30, or 20, or 25 years later.”
While seeing accidents “puts a whammy” on English’s day, the six death notifications he has delivered throughout his career are even more haunting.
“The death notifications are the worst because you’re going back to a family member and telling them that their life has changed,” English said.
On April 9, 2010, junior Lauren Poirier lost her 14 year old brother Jordan to a fatal car accident. According to Poirier, her brother and his intoxicated friends were driving to get food when a cop attempted to pull them over for speeding. Because they did not yet have driving permits, they tried to drive away in fear, but lost control. The car flipped into a pole, resulting in two fatalities.
“I found out in my living room, with my mom unable to speak through tears,” Poirier said. “My dad was identifying the body.”
Poirier remembers returning to her bedroom unable to “breathe or live.”
The effects of tragedies such as these are long lasting.
“It affects my family every day,” Poirier said. “Every ambulance, every cop car, every accident brings up horrible memories… Before I got my license I was terrified to drive, and driving on the anniversary freaks me out.”
After suffering a horrible loss, Poirier notices people making bad decisions behind the wheel more.
“The most difficult part was dealing with people’s carelessness with driving,” Poirier said. “When I see kids posting accidents on [social media] and drinking and driving, it just pisses me off. They have no clue what’s it’s like, and they won’t until it’s too late.”
Fifteen year old Kate Phalon McCarthy was sitting in the backseat of a friend’s car in April 2016 when the driver swerved around a bend and lost control of the vehicle. According to Phalon McCarthy’s cousin, junior Stephanie Kalinowski, she was killed almost immediately.
Kalinowski’s family has participated in “The Kate Run” for the past two years to raise money for the Phalon McCarthy Memorial Fund which, according to their website, is a “nonprofit charitable organization founded to honor the life of Kate Phalon McCarthy, a beautiful, kind and beloved 15-year-old girl from Weymouth, Massachusetts.”
Two years later, Kalinowski explained that she and her family still struggle with coming to terms with the accident.
“It’s definitely really hard to forget that the accident that took her life could have been prevented so easily,” Kalinowski said. “No matter how much love we put into the world in honor of Kate, knowing that she will never come back is pretty crushing.”
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 about 28 percent of accidents were caused by drunk-drivers; every day about 29 people die in an accident involving alcohol.
Algonquin’s Take Action Seek Changes (TASC) club has been working throughout the year to try to prevent future tragedy by educating and raising awareness about the potential consequences of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“I think that most students here basically know what we stand for: Don’t drink and drive,” TASC club co-president senior Olivia Truong said. “But then there are some other things like smoking and driving for example, where people think that’s okay, and we want to really come up front and tell everyone that that’s not okay – that’s very dangerous.”
The TASC club has been working with the guidance department to bring immersive education about unsafe driving to students as they reach driving age.
“We organized having the speaker Kevin Brooks to come to talk to all the seniors and juniors about drunk driving and his experience with that and how his life changed after that,” Truong said. “We also organized the drunk car-crash simulation that the juniors saw and the police came and the fire-department came and showed what happens if you were to crash your car.”
Juniors attended the drunk car-crash simulation during school. Expecting a normal assembly, they were instead brought out to the parking lot to find a wrecked car with their classmates inside. Pre-recorded audio footage outlined the scenario: two groups of kids were both driving from parties. One car was operated by a student under the influence and one was full of sober kids.
The beginning of the simulation was light and playful, but the mood shifted when the crash sound played, the smoke machine flipped on and the student actors’ screams filled the air. Real Northborough police officers and paramedics participated in the simulation and worked with the student actors to portray what happens in the event of a serious accident.
“The goal wasn’t really to scare people, but it was to show what would happen if they were to make that bad decision,” actress junior Lauren Earley said. “And it was also obviously to steer people away from driving impaired and to teach them about the consequences and the feelings and the emotions and everything that goes with it that happens when a preventable tragedy like this happens.”
Participating in the simulation proved to take heavy emotional tolls on the students who portrayed the car crash victims.
“What was really strange about it was that it was really difficult to differentiate what was real and what was pretend,” Earley said. “It was definitely really emotionally taxing. While I was driving out of the building that day some of the neighbors next to the school were playing on their trampoline, and they were screaming, and as soon as I hear that scream I instinctively just slammed on my brake and looked over.”
Actor junior Nick Hatton portrayed the intoxicated driver who had caused the crash, quickly becoming “public enemy number one” throughout the simulation.
“For that split second, I felt like everyone hated me and rightfully so, because I just killed one of my friends and seriously injured two more,” Hatton said.
Hatton hopes that the simulation persuaded audience members to understand the magnitude of the effects of dangerous driving.
“It’s such a massive thing and I don’t think people understand the actual impact that it has on the community,” Hatton said. “It’s something that not only people underage, but people of age do too. [They] need to realize driving a car is honestly one of the most dangerous things you can do, and when you add being under the influence, that’s such a deadly combo.”
While Griffin and the other officers and firefighters on-site are trained to handle accidents like the one in the simulation, Griffin explained the difficulty of not only being one of the first responders, but in dealing with the post-accident work. They are tasked with delivering the death notification and investigating the scene, and Griffin reflects on the tragedy at each anniversary of the crash.
“During the presentation and my reflection afterwards I kept thinking of my own four kids and the students at Algonquin and how I hope we never have to deal with a real situation like the one that we presented to the juniors,” Griffin said. “No parent should every have to bury their child.”
The Murphy’s Laws of Safe Driving can be found on the Murphy Sisters Foundation website. The ten laws aim to promote good driving habits to young teens: to never drive under the influence, to abide by the speed limit and to always wear a seatbelt, among other important guidelines.
Murphy also urges that students avoid getting in the car with an unsafe driver.
“Come up with an excuse and call your parents for a ride,” Murphy said.
Some think that it may be unrealistic to put an end to all parties and substance use, however, students still can still plan accordingly to make a safer choice.
“It’s a much bigger task to make the community drug and alcohol free, and obviously that can’t happen: students are going to use substances regardless of what people say,” TASC club co-president senior Kimmie Skinner said. “So I think at least educating them and trying to keep them safe is the main goal.”
“I definitely think planning ahead if you plan to drink or smoke is really important,” Kalinowski said. “I can promise that at least one of your friends or family members is willing to drive you, you just have to ask.”
While substance use accounts for a large portion of accidents, over 400,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver according to 2013 US Cell Phone and Driving Statistics. English has dealt with cases caused purely by distracted driving; a 21 year old girl drove into a tractor-trailer truck at a red light at an estimated 68 miles per hour through “lack of attention.”
“I went and did the death notification to her family,” English said. “And her father fell to her knees and was clawing at my shirt crying saying ‘she’s my only daughter, tell me it’s not her’.”
English’s best advice to anyone stepping into a vehicle is to wear a seatbelt.
“I’ve never unbuckled a dead body,” English said. “I’ve been to over 30 fatal accidents and I’ve seen people survive crashes with minor or no injuries because they were wearing seatbelts, and I would just look at the wreckage of the car and shake my head, but these people were pretty much okay.
According to English, failing to wear a seatbelt can cost a life.
“I’ve been to some fatal accidents where I looked at the person who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and you look at the person and you would have thought that they were sleeping: almost no visible damage,” English said. “But they went forward and crushed their skull on one of the pillars on the windshield and just crushed their skull…So wear your seatbelt.”
According to an article “5 Worst Driving Habits and What You Can Do to Break Them” published by DrivingTests.org, distracted driving includes but is not limited to cell phone use, eating and applying makeup while driving. Students can make an active attempt to be more aware of their behavior and pledge It Can Wait, which is a campaign dedicated to keeping eyes on the road. Drowsy driving is also a leading cause of accidents; the article advises drivers experiencing drowsiness to pull over and take a short nap before continuing the drive.
According to Hatton, this awareness cannot be undervalued because the aftermath of accidents affects everyone.
“People get in the car and start driving, but their decisions can impact other people besides themselves…,” Hatton said. “Think about everyone else affected from that: it’s the people in the other car, their family, their friends, their entire community. No one’s going to be the same.”