With the New Year upon us I wanted to take the time to share a powerful story that was posted on the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s blog. It’s from a crash that one of my coworkers investigated and should leave every one of us something so simple and preventable to think about. 

French fries. Who’d have thought it would be French fries?

Sgt. Kelly Phillips has been a crash investigator for the Minnesota State Patrol for 12 years, and there’s one crash that will stay with her forever. And it all started with a bag of French fries.

Sgt. Phillips was called to the scene of a fatal crash on County Road 50 in Lakeville. It was Dec. 12, 2009, and three generations of a family – a grandmother, aunt, and granddaughter – were heading home from a Christmas choir practice at their church when their car was hit head-on by a truck going the opposite direction. “There were family members waiting for them at home, but instead of their family showing up, it was officers and a chaplain saying they were never coming home,” says Phillips sadly. 

As she was responding to the scene, Phillips was told two had died. But as she stood talking to some Lakeville police officers, some firefighters called her over to the car, asking her to look in the backseat. There lay the body of an 8-year-old girl, partially thrown out of the back door. Dead.

“I try not to get personally involved. Just for my mental health, I can’t let it affect me too much,” explains Phillips. “But some hit home.” She collected her thoughts as best she could, letting her training take over so she could do her job: “Look at the evidence. Mark it. Take pictures. Document. Forensically map the scene.” Step by step. 

When the medical examiner showed up to remove the occupants and document the injuries, they had to start with the little girl. Phillips recalls standing over her for “quite some time. Then the grandmother. Then the aunt. They clearly died in an instant.” The realization gave Phillips scant relief, because she kept thinking about how that little girl should have been at home. “Fatal crashes aren’t just a moment in time,” she says, her voice gaining urgency. “She should have woken up Christmas morning and opened gifts with her grandma watching. The aunt’s little girls lost their mom.” 

“It’s the trickle-down effect,” Phillips continues, thinking about what that little girl would be doing now. “She should have been graduating high school and planning out a future and worrying about boyfriends. She was robbed of that. Her whole family was robbed of that.” 

Those memories come up more and more for Phillips now that she’s a mom. “When my daughter turned eight, I would look at her in the rearview mirror and think that other little girl was just as carefree and happy in the backseat, not knowing it was her last car ride. Not knowing she’d never go home again.” 

Phillips’ voice takes on an urgency borne of frustration, her words tumbling out of her mouth almost faster than she can say them. “This year has been way worse in terms of traffic deaths. People were driving over 100 mph almost daily. It’s scary. At those speeds, you can’t stop in time; you wouldn’t be able to control it. As a reconstructionist, it’s frustrating to see two or three deaths a day. Plus serious injury crashes that change their lives…paralysis, traumatic brain injuries…” She pauses for breath while she gathers her thoughts, then quietly declares, “I would love to never be called to another crash ever again.”

But Phillips does this job anyway, because “It’s about giving the families closure. They deserve to know why and how this happened, and whether it could have been prevented.” 

Just like that family of that grandmother, aunt and granddaughter 11 years ago. At the crash scene that December night, Phillips began examining the other vehicle involved in the crash: a large pickup truck piloted by a teenager who wasn’t seriously hurt. There was a McDonald’s bag on the front seat, and the smell of food still hung in the air. Days later, she went over all the evidence to determine the cause of the crash. The road was straight — there was no reason this truck should have crossed over the center line. Speed wasn’t an issue, and neither was his cell phone – he let them look, and there was no activity on it at the time of the crash. Phillips was puzzled: “So why did he look down that long and cross over the center line?”

Then she remembered the McDonald’s bag, and the fries scattered on the seat of his pickup. French fries. “He looked down too long to get his food.” The simplicity – the sheer cruelty of it all – is shocking.

Phillips sums it up with simple determination: “The public needs to understand that if you slow down, wear a seat belt, get a sober ride and pay attention, you can prevent these crashes.”

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