‘People are dying:’ After teen’s death, mother combating distracted driving

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

The laughter, applause and cheerful conversations turn to silence as Thompson High School Principal Dr. Wesley Hester approaches the podium at the school’s graduation ceremony at UAB’s Bartow Arena on May 22.

About 10 feet in front of him, a folding chair draped in a white cloth cover holds a red sash, a red-and-white tassel, a bouquet of purple flowers, a folded black graduation gown tied with a purple ribbon and a photo of the young woman who should have been sitting there.

Although nearly 500 students are seated on the arena’s floor and thousands of their loved ones fill the surrounding stadium seating, the venue is as quiet as it was before the first person arrived.

Michelle Lunsford displays a resolute facial expression as she approaches the small stairway leading from the gym floor onto the stage, but internally she is trying to keep the sadness of the moment from overcoming her.

“Tonight, we have a special presentation,” Hester says. “A few months ago, the Thompson High School family lost one of our own: Camryn “CiCi” Callaway. I’d like to invite her mother, Michelle Lunsford, onto the stage to accept CiCi’s diploma.”

After embracing Hester, Lunsford pauses near the front of the stage to reflect on the moment as she somberly gazes at the dark red, leather-wrapped high school diploma originally intended for her daughter. The roaring applause from the crowd in the auditorium serves as a testament to how much Camryn was loved, but does little to dull the overwhelming, gut-wrenching sting of the reality surrounding the moment.

“I don’t want any other parent to have to go through this,” Lunsford says while reflecting on the moment a few months later. “Things have got to change.”

What should have been a joyous celebration of a teenager reaching a significant milestone in her life is instead a potent reminder of a life cut tragically short by a handheld bundle of circuitry wrapped in aluminum, glass and plastic.

 

‘Not something she did’

 

Seventeen-year-old Camryn was known throughout THS and in the community for her multitude of talents, especially her passion for the arts. She had been involved in the school’s choir since the eighth grade, was heavily involved in the school’s Junior ROTC program and was preparing to attend the University of Montevallo in the fall to peruse a degree in education.

Camryn and her family moved to Alabaster from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when she was only 3 years old, and she grew up with many of the friends she should have graduated with last May.

“Above all, I’d describe her as artistic and creative. She was really good at all of it,” Lunsford said. “She worked hard at everything she did, but she still did all the normal teenage things.”

Like most teens, Camryn was excited when her 16th birthday arrived, as it brought with it the chance for more independence. While working for her aunt and uncle at Mikey’s Grill off Valleydale Road in Hoover, Camryn saved every penny she could to help pay for a late-model Ford Mustang GT hardtop.

“She loved her car and she babied it. She never hot-rodded it or anything,” Lunsford said, noting Camryn saved enough money to make a nearly 50-percent down payment on the vehicle.

Camryn was also known among her peers for her aversion to texting while driving.

“She would get onto me for looking at my phone while I was driving. She would say ‘Give me the phone, mom,’” Lunsford said. “She was a good driver. All of her friends said they were floored when they heard about the accident, because she never used her phone while she was driving.

“I’m not saying she (texted while driving) for the first time ever when she crashed, but that was not something she did,” Lunsford added.

Through an app called Life360, Camryn’s phone alerted her mother whenever she arrived at a destination, such as work, and allowed Lunsford to see her location when she was away from home.

On Feb. 22, the app served as the first warning sign something was wrong.

 

‘There’s been a wreck’

 

Camryn typically traveled on Interstate 65 from her family’s home in Alabaster to work at Mikey’s Grill each day, and returned home by taking U.S. 31. When Lunsford saw on the Life360 app Camryn was traveling on I-65 after leaving work on Feb. 22, she initially thought nothing of it.

“I knew she had a new coworker starting that day, and I thought she may have been driving her home or something,” Lunsford said. “Even when it showed that she was stopped on I-65 just past the tank farm exit, I didn’t think too much about it because the road-widening project had just started and traffic was usually bad right there.”

Several minutes passed, and Camryn’s location didn’t change. When Camryn didn’t answer her phone, Lunsford started to worry, and called her sister at Mikey’s.

“She told me ‘There’s traffic,” and then ‘OK, I see the police lights’ and then ‘Michelle, there’s been a wreck,’” Lunsford said. “I heard her get out of the car and run up to one of the police officers and say ‘That’s my niece’s car, and I’ve got her mom on the phone.’”

Then, the phone went dead. Lunsford later learned the officer had taken the phone from her sister and hung up so Lunsford wouldn’t learn the terrible news in such an informal manner.

After calling around to area hospitals in an attempt to find out if her daughter was injured, her phone rang again. On the other end of the line, a Pelham Police Department supervisor shared the news of Camryn’s death.

While traveling on the off-ramp at exit 242, Camryn was typing a text message on her phone when her Mustang slammed into the back of a tractor trailer and slid underneath it, shearing the roof off the Ford.

“The police said she was texting, and she was traveling about 40 miles per hour when it happened,” Lunsford said.

The Shelby County coroner’s office declared Camryn deceased at the scene, and listed her official cause of death as blunt force trauma.

 

‘Something has got to change’

 

For Pelham Police Department traffic officer Todd McCann and law enforcement officials across the nation, the prevalence of mobile devices have brought many negatives.

“Without a doubt, it’s definitely much higher now than it was when I started,” McCann said of the increase in serious vehicle crashes during his 18-year tenure in law enforcement in Birmingham and Pelham. “And out of every five wrecks I work, I’d say three-and-a-half or four of them involve distracted driving of some sort, whether it’s texting, changing radio stations or reaching down to pick something up off the floor.”

In many of the distracted driving wrecks McCann has worked in recent years, there have been no skid marks emanating from the at-fault vehicle, meaning the driver didn’t know the wreck was coming until the moment of impact.

“One time, I worked a wreck off (Highway) 280 where a vehicle had crossed the center line and hit a truck head-on and the driver was killed,” McCann said. “I noticed an indention in the windshield and I saw a cell phone lying in the floorboard. I picked up the cell phone and it fit right into that indention like a puzzle piece.”

For Lunsford and McCann, Alabama’s current laws related to cell phone use while driving do not go far enough, and both are making pushes to add more teeth to the state’s codes. Since Camryn’s death, Lunsford has joined state legislators such as Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, and Sens. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Jim McClendon, R-Springville, to get the ball rolling on a stronger state texting law. The updated law likely will be considered by the Alabama Legislature during its 2019 session.

If the changes are made, Alabama’s cell phone usage law would essentially mirror Georgia’s, which does not allow drivers to physically hold a phone at any time while driving, even to make or receive a phone call. Georgia drivers can only talk on the phone while driving if they use a hands-free device, such as an earpiece or voice-operated features.

McCann also said Alabama’s cell phone usage law needs heavier penalties to serve as a stronger deterrent in an already difficult-to-enforce law.

“I think the fines are pretty lenient on texting while driving,” McCann said. “I’ll see someone swerving all over the road, and I know they’re texting. When I pull them over and ask them if they were texting, they always say no, every single time.

“Then I’ll tell them ‘You were all over the road, so I pulled you over for failure to maintain (your) lane,’” McCann added, noting the fine for failure to maintain a lane is several hundred dollars while the fine for a first-time texting while driving offense is $25. “When they hear how much the failure to maintain lane fine is, they’ll always go back and say ‘Yes, I was texting.’”

McCann said not allowing phones in cars at all – as is the case with federally licensed motor carriers – would be the ultimate solution to cutting down on the number of fatal wrecks, but said anything the state can do to strengthen current texting-while-driving laws would cut down on the number of fatal crashes.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” McCann said. “Something has got to change, because this is killing people out there. People are dying.”

 

‘This is real’

 

At two weeks to the day after Camryn’s death, many in attendance at Thompson High School’s Parent University event were surprised to see Lunsford at the front of the school’s auditorium talking about the still-fresh tragedy to other parents in the community.

In reality, Lunsford’s public campaign to combat distracted driving actually began at Camryn’s funeral on Feb. 26 at Union Springs Baptist Church in Randolph.

“At her wake, we had four hours of people coming through the door, and I was honest with everybody,” Lunsford said. “I told everyone, especially the high school students, that she is in this casket because of texting and driving. I told them I don’t want them to ever text and drive again.”

In the weeks and months since the crash, Lunsford has not shied away from using the tragedy to combat what is quickly becoming an epidemic on the nation’s roadways, even when doing so causes the pain of Camryn’s death to resurface time and time again.

“The first event (Lunsford) spoke at for us was really soon after the crash, but she was passionate about wanting to tell her story at Parent University,” said Alabaster City Schools Student Services Coordinator Dorann Tanner. “I think her mother and her friends have done a phenomenal job of keeping her legacy alive and making good on the promise to use this as kind of a wake-up call.”

From March through May, Lunsford had eight speaking engagements at local schools to show students the real-world implications of turning their attention away from the roadway – even for a few seconds – while they are behind the wheel.

“West Blocton and Chilton County (high schools) stand out to me, because the kids really took the message to heart. At Chilton County, there were 50 or 60 kids lined up afterward to talk to me and hug me.

“One girl was actually angry because she said ‘I was looking around, and some of the kids weren’t listening to what you were saying,’” Lunsford added. “I told her ‘I came into this knowing I wouldn’t reach everyone, but I reached you, and that’s what matters.’”

At Camryn’s high school, students took the message to heart on a more personal level. During the week leading up to Thompson High’s 2018 prom, Camryn’s mangled silver Mustang GT was on display on a trailer in front of the school.

“At first, we were concerned about putting her car out there, especially only a few months after the wreck, but her mother and her friends stepped up and said ‘We want this. We want to show what happened so maybe it will keep it from happening again,’” Tanner said. “I think it hit close to home for our kids, because high school students are in that teenage immortality phase. This was one of their classmates, and now she’s not there anymore. I think they realized that this is real, and it could happen to anyone.”

Although facing her daughter’s death head-on has been difficult, Lunsford said her faith and knowing she is making a difference has given her much comfort.

“I’m a Christian, and I know Camryn was. I know where she is now, and I know I will see her again one day. I can’t imagine going through the loss of a child and not having my faith,” Lunsford said. “And I don’t mind sharing her story to anyone who will listen. I know in my heart I’m making a difference, and that’s what I hold onto.”