Three years after local high school student Elizabeth Murphy died in a car accident, her little sister spoke about the tragedy publicly for the first time.
Molly Murphy, 18, a Summit High School senior, promoted seat belts to about 80 students at Fairplay High School Wednesday.
Before she and Marissa Krepel, one of Lizzie’s good friends, stood up in front of the crowd to speak, she said the students in the audience were talking, laughing, not paying attention.
Then Molly, nervous and shaking, told her story.
She showed them photos of the smashed car and its shattered windows. Her sister Lizzie, who was driving without a seat belt, swerved to avoid a deer or elk in the road May 2, 2011. The car flipped. Lizzie flew through the driver’s side window and died at the scene.
In the emergency room, Molly recounted, she asked her dad where her sister was.
She’s gone, he said.
At that point in her story Molly broke down.
“It got really quiet when Molly started to cry,” said Jackie Pike, deputy fire marshall for Red, White and Blue Fire Rescue in Breckenridge. It’s OK, she told Molly afterward; showing emotion probably made a greater impact on the kids.
“I think it became more real for them,” Molly said, “because we’re like their age.”
Last Friday night, Summit High School kicked off its annual seat-belt challenge at the air band and lip-syncing concert that was part of prom festivities.
The challenge started three years ago, right before Lizzie’s death.
“Summit really latched onto that,” Anne Robinson-Montera said, “and their numbers are through the roof.”
Robinson-Montera is the project coordinator for the group that puts on the student-led campaign, the Central Mountains Regional Emergency and Trauma Advisory Council (RETAC), which is one of 11 similar prevention groups in the state. The council covers six counties in a region the size of New Jersey.
The challenge is funded in part by the council and mostly through a grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“Lizzie’s death had a huge impact on Summit,” Pike said. Students made seat belt safety a priority, she said, and Summit usually leads the challenge.
At school, Molly said dealing with drama is harder without her sister, who was like a best friend. She said students sometimes joke about people who don’t wear seat belts.
“It hurts really bad,” she said. “She just forgot. It wasn’t like she wasn’t meaning to.”
This week, students in the Pre-Collegiate Program have visited Summit Middle School and the county’s elementaries. One student dresses as Timmus the Tiger, the high school mascot, and others ask seat-belt trivia questions and give out prizes and t-shirts designed by high school junior Angie Ramos.
And as students arrived to school Thursday morning, the high school held a seat belt count.
Out of more than 500 cars and more than 900 people, Pike said, seat belt use was at 98.4 percent.
“That’s pretty darn good,” she said, adding that of the nine people not wearing seat belts, most were parents.
It’s an improvement from October 2011, when a seat-belt count reported Summit High’s rate as 88.3 percent.
Six schools are competing in the challenge this year, with prizes awarded to the schools with the greatest increase in seat-belt use, the highest ending seat-belt use rate and the best overall campaign activities and student participation.
First place wins $1,000, second place $750, third place $500, and the other schools gets $250. All the money will go toward safety initiatives.
Last year, Buena Vista High School won for most improved, with a jump from 48 percent to 81 percent. Summit High School won the prize for highest seat-belt use rate.
“The more rural a community is,” Pike said, explaining the low rate at Salida High School, “the lower the seat-belt rate is.”
She said people think because there’s not much traffic, they aren’t going far or they’re driving slow that they don’t need to wear a seat belt.
“A lot of people are killed in crashes at 25 mph,” she said.
According to Central Mountains RETAC, of 17 traffic fatalities in 2010 in the region’s six counties, 10 people who died weren’t wearing seat belts. Studies show that if they had, about half would have survived.
And for every driving-related death, about 1,100 people are severely injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
The most common injury is brain trauma, from which most people never fully recover, said Vera Fullaway with Child Passenger Safety Colorado, and the second most common is spinal cord injury, which can leave people paralyzed. Other severe injuries require multiple surgeries.
“You could be a vegetable,” Pike said. “Death isn’t always the worst thing that can happen.”