Investigations

Family paid 'ultimate price' when their daughter didn't buckle up

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Everyone knows wearing a seatbelt saves lives. KXAN Investigates' analysis shows the 16-year-old Click It or Ticket campaign to keep people safe on the road is working. The number of tragedies behind not wearing a belt is dropping in Texas.

So far, the numbers are down compared to this time last year. As of this summer, Texas has had 612 deaths and 1,274 serious injuries from crashes where people did not buckle up. Those crashes were like the one involving Katlyn Fowler, who died in October 2016. 

Driving along I-35, one of the busiest and most dangerous highways in the state, drivers are confronted with Click It or Ticket billboards, serving as a reminder to buckle up. But in Troy, Texas, where life moves a little slower, Fowler’s family has a more painful reminder. The crash site is no longer marked by caution tape, but memorials and remnants from the night that shattered a family. Reflectors now serve as a warning on a blind curve, a safety precaution Christine Mercer’s daughter and her two friends never had.

"It's just always a reminder,” Mercer said, looking at her daughter’s memorial, just down the road from the high school. 

"She came around a little too fast and hit that concrete and when she did, the car went airborne and then it hit the tree,” Mercer said of her 17-year-old daughter’s friend, who was driving that October night. 

Fowler and the other passenger were ejected from the car. 

"Her friend was able to get out of the car. She was the only survivor. And she was wearing a seatbelt,” Mercer said. 

Fowler was less than a mile from home.  

"Told myself I wasn't going to cry,” Mercer said, tears welling, sitting at her kitchen table with pictures of her daughter spread out. “But it's not easy at all. It's like all of the memories just come back that … all of the dreams are gone. All of them, like less than a second." 

Better known as “Katy Bug,” Fowler would have graduated high school this year.     

"This is her smile that she always has. She had the biggest smile,” Mercer said, picking up a picture from her daughter’s childhood. 

Mercer’s oldest son sat by her side for comfort. 

"Every night, I take a shower, I just cry. And so the kids don't see me but…” Mercer said, crying, “She was my only daughter." 

Mercer says she still gets angry with herself for not telling her daughter to wear a seatbelt. She flashes back to the last time Fowler pulled out of their driveway.  

“I never said anything about the seatbelt, nothing. Even when it dinged because she started the car and she didn’t have her seatbelt on, it was dinging and she turned the music up. I didn’t, I still never thought. It just never crossed my mind to say anything, like 'Don’t ever do that,'” Mercer said. “That’s probably the hardest part about it all, is the fact that she’s never coming back and you can’t play that day over.” 

'Increase in saving lives'

In the capital city, officers like Austin Police Sgt. Michele Aparicio enforce TxDOT’s Click It or Ticket campaign. 

"I see in the increase in saving lives versus what I saw before, since the inception of this program,” she told KXAN. 

Taking a closer look at the numbers since 2010, KXAN found deaths related to not wearing seatbelts rose by about 7 percent and the number of serious injuries went up 2 percent. But to see the real success, you have to consider those increases are much lower than the number of people on the road today. In that time, the state’s population has increased 12 percent, outpacing the statistics for these types of crashes. 

"I think the education that TxDOT has done, what APD's done with our big initiative that we've done with our officers in going out and writing tickets for those violations, I think people see that Texas takes this very seriously,” Sgt. Aparicio said. 

The latest numbers from the state confirm across Texas, more people are wearing their seatbelts today than before the program. We’re talking a growth from about 75 percent, to now nearly 92 percent. To put that in perspective, the federal government estimates each percentage point saves 25 more lives. 

Getting better so people don't have to pay the 'ultimate price'

To keep improving, Sgt. Aparicio says she’d like to see more tie in with other safety campaigns, like No Refusal. 

"We also should be focusing on the Click It or Ticket at the same time that we are focusing on the drinking and driving campaigns," Aparicio said.

However, while Click It or Ticket has numbers to back up its positive effects, a KXAN investigation earlier this year took a closer look at the Texas Department of Transportation's "No Refusal" campaign, questioning the effectiveness of a program meant to get drunk drivers off Texas roads. The program is funded through a combination of federal, state and local dollars and years later, the answer to just how effective it really is isn't totally clear. Still, the costs of the crashes, no matter the cause, remains the same.

"We show what happens if you drink and drive," Mercer said. "We show an accident and what a car looks like and someone died. But we don’t show, oh, this is what happens if you wear a seatbelt. So I think a lot more awareness because I think we lose a lot of kids.” 

Mercer brought KXAN to her daughter’s gravesite, something she says is important for people to see. 

"This is it. And a lot of times people don't show that. They just show what happened or they tell what happened but they don't see where we have to go,” she said. 

Now, she’s telling anyone who will listen: Wear. Your. Seatbelt. 

"We've paid the ultimate price. And we don't want to pay that ultimate price again. And I don't want families to have to pay that ultimate price to understand that it does happen,” Mercer said. 

In a statement, TxDOT told KXAN it's always focused on improving roadway design and construction to be more forgiving for human driving errors, but that drivers do have a responsibility to follow traffic laws to help keep roadways safer for everyone. 

Connecting with loss

KXAN met Mercer through the nonprofit Kailee Mills Foundation, specifically, a program called Kailee’s Angels, that connects with other families who have lost a loved one not wearing a seatbelt, offering counseling support and scholarships. The 16-year-old’s parents created the organization after she died in a crash last October. 

The group provides support and scholarship funds to those who have lost a loved one in similar crashes.

KXAN spoke with the Mills family on the 10-month anniversary of Kailee’s death. 

“She was riding with some friends, it was Halloween weekend and she left our house to go to a Halloween party and she had unbuckled her seat when they got about 500 yards from my house. She unbuckled her seatbelt to take a selfie with her friend, and just seconds later the car went off the road and she was ejected from the car and she was killed instantly,” her father, David Mills, shared. “And the other teenagers in the car all survived the car accident with very little injury. “And so we know that she would still be here today if she were wearing her seatbelt." 

Kailee’s aunt and Vice President of the foundation, Briana McCulloch, says this year they will be providing a $20,000 scholarship to a student has lost a parent or sibling in a car crash. The goal of the scholarship, she said, is to remove the worry of how someone is going to pay for college during an emotionally and financially difficult time. 

“One thing that has helped the healing for our family is being able to honor Kailee and carry on her legacy in a positive way," McCulloch said. "To help other people realize what's really at stake."